Peter T. Leeson, the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University, has written papers about ninjas, UFOs, and witch trials, along with a book called The Invisible Hook (Princeton), which applies economic principles to pirates. In a new working paper, he joins co-authors Peter Boettke and Jayme S. Lemke, also of George Mason, to mount an economist's defense of wife sales, a common practice in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, when divorce was tricky and married women lacked property rights. Leeson spoke with reason Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward in August.
Q: What inspired you to write about wife sales?
A: When I was doing some pirate research, I saw an ad in an 18th-century newspaper. It was an ad for a wife, which was the common thing in newspapers at the time. I was completely stunned by it and thought that it was absurd at first. Upon closer inspection I thought that it was sensible.
Q: What is the historical setting for wife sales?
A: The context in which these things are being developed is one of incredibly stringent and ridiculous laws relating to property, marriage, and divorce in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. What's happening with marriage law is that when a woman marries a man during this period, she basically surrenders all of her property rights—including important property rights in her physical person—to her husband.
So if you're a wife who is unhappy in her marriage, you have to eventually get your husband's consent in order to be able to get out of that marriage. And the Coase theorem in economics tells us basically that this shouldn't be problematic. An unhappy wife, just like an unhappy husband, can purchase that right from their spouse. The problem, of course, is that wives can't buy their way out of the unhappy marriage directly because they don't own anything.
But there might be a person out there who values the wife more than her current husband does and whom she values more than her current husband. And that guy, unlike the wife, actually has some property rights that aren't the husband's property rights, with which he could purchase the right for the wife to exit the marriage indirectly from the husband. That's essentially what a wife sale is.
Q: Who bought the wives?
A: It appears that sales to the wife's lover were very common. And that makes sense. The husband wants to sell the wife for the highest price he can get, to the person who values her the most—whom she is also willing to go with. The nice thing about a lover, when one exists, is that he satisfies that very easily. It's extremely likely that the wife's lover is going to be the one willing to pay the most for her; he values her the most because they have a built-up relationship. He is also going to be someone whom the wife values more than her husband. And probably she is going to value him as a potential husband more than her existing husband.
So it makes sense that oftentimes the lover was the buyer. But this isn't always going to be the case. In more than a few cases, you're going to have a situation where the wife doesn't like her existing husband. She imagines that there's somebody out there who she would rather be married to or she wants to find out. The husband is willing to see if there's somebody out there who values her sufficiently highly to take his wife off his hands. So in that case, the public auctioning element of wife sales becomes really important, because a public auction lets you generate exactly that kind of information.
It's very important to emphasize that this was consensual. Wives were not compelled to be sold. They wanted to be sold.