Saturday, 11 August 2018

Does brideprice explain why ISIS offered wives to its members?

You may have seen the stories, such as this one from CBS News in 2015:
The honeymoon was a brief moment for love, away from the front lines of Syria's war. In the capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's self-proclaimed "caliphate," Syrian fighter Abu Bilal al-Homsi was united with his Tunisian bride for the first time after months chatting online. They married, then passed the days dining on grilled meats in Raqqa's restaurants, strolling along the Euphrates River and eating ice cream.
It was all made possible by the marriage bonus he received from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): $1,500 for him and his wife to get started on a new home, a family - and a honeymoon.
I thought it was interesting at the time, but mostly put it down to an organisation that is short on money finding non-monetary ways to incentivise new membership. Indeed, it appears that is exactly what was going on, but brideprice has a key role as the source of the incentive.

A brideprice is a payment (monetary or non-monetary) from the family of the groom to the family of the bride, on the occasion of their wedding. It is the norm throughout Africa, and most of Asia (excepting South Asia), as the following map shows (though note that sub-national heterogeneity is not shown, and there are areas in Africa where brideprice is not the norm):



In a recent article published in the journal International Security (ungated version here), Valerie Hudson (Texas A&M University) and Hilary Matfess (Yale) explain the economics of brideprice, and there is a lot of good economics in the article (so forgive the number of quotes, but the story is interesting):
The status of males in patrilineal societies is strongly linked to marriage. Not only does marriage mark the transition to manhood in patrilineal societies, but it establishes the male as a source of lineage and inheritance within the larger patriline. The marriage imperative is thus deeply felt among males in such cultures. And yet, marriage is unobtainable without assets...
Marriage in patrilineal societies is accompanied by asset exchange, wherein brideprice offsets the cost to the natal family of raising the bride... In addition to patrilocal marriage and the lack of female property rights mentioned above, these societies are characterized
by arranged marriage in the patriline’s interest; a relatively low age of marriage for girls; profound underinvestment in female human capital; intense son preference, resulting in passive neglect of girl children or active female infanticide/sex-selective abortion; highly inequitable family and personal status law favoring men; and chronically high levels of violence against women as a means to enforce the imposition of the patrilineal system on often recalcitrant women...
In patrilineal systems, brideprice is essentially an obligatory tax on young men, payable to older men...
...men pay for their sons’ brideprices by first collecting the brideprice for their daughters. Such transactions are another force pushing down the age of marriage among girls in brideprice societies, in addition to the desire to stop providing for daughters who, socially, will become the responsibility of another family. Unless a family is very wealthy, daughters in general must be married off first, so that the family can accumulate enough assets to pay the sons’ brideprices... If brideprice were not standardized within the society, families could not count on the brideprices brought in by their daughters being sufficient to cover the costs of their sons’ marriages. Thus, over time, a fairly consistent brideprice emerges for the community at any given time, though the actual cost may vary somewhat over time depending on local conditions...
Given the tendency toward brideprice inflation, an unequal distribution of wealth will amplify market distortions by facilitating polygyny...
Given both low investments in women’s health and the early age of marriage for girls in these societies, maternal mortality rates in most patrilineal societies tend to be egregiously high...
Thus, both polygyny and higher rates of post-marriage female mortality increase the ratio of marriageable males to marriageable females. Sometimes this scarcity produces extreme downward pressure on the marriage age of girls in a given society, with some marrying off girls as young as eight...
The patrilineal syndrome, therefore, is primed to produce chronic marriage market obstruction because (1) brideprice acts as a flat tax on young men that they cannot refuse to pay without suffering profoundly adverse social consequences; (2) brideprice catalyzes polygyny among the wealthier segments of society; and (3) the devaluation of women’s lives leads to high female mortality...
Marriage market obstruction, in turn, can be an important factor driving young men to join violent groups. The flat and inflationary nature of brideprice guarantees that poor young men will be hard-pressed to marry... These young men are not taking up arms against the institution of brideprice. Rather, at the individual level, a young man engages in violence to become more successful within the patrilineal system...
Furthermore, if a family has many sons, it may strive mightily to get the first son married, but then the younger, higher birth-order sons (such as the third, fourth and fifth sons) are typically expected to find their own sources of funding to pay brideprice...
Being unemployed is never good, but being unemployed in a society where you can only become an adult man by marrying and in which marriage requires significant financial resources produces a clear intensification of vexation and desperation...
High levels of grievance open up an opportunity for anti-establishment groups to exploit young men attempting to gain the status and the assets needed to marry. Delayed marriage and, importantly, the threat that one may never father a son in a culture defined by patrilineality are common elements exploited by groups seeking young adult men interested in redressing the injustice they feel on a personal level, by force if necessary.
Hudson and Matfess illustrate their article with examples of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin and northern Nigeria, and militia groups in South Sudan. In both cases, brideprice inflation has led armed groups to offer incentives in the form of wives to militants willing to sign up. Hudson and Matfess also offer the counter-example of Saudi Arabia, where the government has capped brideprice and also acted to reduce the cost of weddings.

The article argues that polygyny increases the scarcity of potential brides, and prices increase when 'resources' are scarcer, and this pushes up the brideprice. That puts brides out of reach of low-income men, particularly second and later sons who can't rely on their family to be able to pay the brideprice for them. This is not just a flat tax. Because the brideprice is the same regardless of income (it's not an example of the 'law of one price' I would have considered), it is a regressive tax (it takes up a higher proportion of the income of a lower income man than a higher income man). This regressive tax incentivises low income men to: (1) take up arms in order to have the insurgent group find them a wife (e.g. Boko Haram); or (2) to engage in cattle raiding with armed groups (e.g. South Sudan). Either way, their inclusion in the armed group is a way for the young men to get a wife that they otherwise could not afford.

Finally, economists usually frown on the use of price controls, since they tend to lower economic welfare (they create a deadweight loss). As the case of Saudi Arabia shows, this might be one of the few exceptions. Without controls on the brideprice, Saudi Arabia might have faced a whole lot more problems.

[HT: Marginal Revolution]

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