Economics of Wife Sales

Another diversion in my research into English wife selling. This is from The Review of Behavioural Economics and is an interesting piece, but I wonder if the authors have ever been in a relationship, as most people would know such matters are far more complex than they suggest here: 

We argue that wife sales were an institutional response to an unusual constellation of property rights in English law before the turn of the twentieth century. That constellation simultaneously retired most wives to obtain their husbands’ consent to exit their marriages and denied most wives the right to own property. In doing so it precluded direct Coasean divorce bargains between spouses that could dissolve inefficient marriage when wives’ valuation of life outside their marriages was higher than husband’s valuation of life inside them.

To overcome this problem, spouses used wife sales to conduct divorce bargains indirectly. Wife-sale auctions achieved this by identifying and leveraging “suitors” – men who valued unhappy wives ore than their current husbands who unhappy wives preferred to their current husbands and who had the property rights required to buy unhappy wives’ right to exit marriage from their husbands. The resulting transaction enabled unhappy wives in inefficient marriages to exit those marriages where English law otherwise prevented them from doing so.

Our analysis of wife sales as a mechanism of indirect Coasean bargaining supports the view that such sales enhanced the welfare of industrial revolution-era English wives.

Our analysis draws on 222 unique cases of wife sales in Great Britain between 1735 and 1899. [from newspapers] Our sample reflects what may be only a small fraction of he wife sales that occurred during this period. Still, the cases it contains provide an close, in-depth look at the institution of wife sales…

It’s more about people getting on – or not. I don’t think even then that people went hunting for buyers. Most cases were about women who had already fled unhappy marriages.

Coasean refers to the work of economist Ronald Coase. Here’s his wiki entry in case you want to know more:

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