June, 2011

Wife Sales

  • Peter Leeson

    Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Peter J. Boettke

    Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Jayme Lemke

    Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
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Read the full article at peterleeson.com.
 

For over a century English husbands sold their wives at public auctions. We argue that wife sales were indirect Coasean divorce bargains that permitted wives to buy the right to exit marriage from their husbands in a legal environment that denied them the property rights required to buy that right directly. Wife-sale auctions identified "suitors" - men who valued unhappy wives more than their current husbands, who unhappy wives valued more than their current husbands, and who had the property rights required to buy unhappy wives' right to exit marriage from their husbands. These suitors enabled spouses in inefficient marriages to dissolve their marriages where direct Coasean divorce bargains between them were impossible. Wife sales were an efficiency-enhancing institutional response to the unusual constellation of property rights that Industrial Revolution-era English law created. They made husbands, suitors, and wives better off.