The Economics Of Dowry

A lot has been said and written about dowry in India and it has more or less been accepted as a disagreeable practice to follow, however the institution of dowry is still very prevalent in large parts of the country. There is a lot of literature out there that presents many a cause-affect relationship between dowry and various other issues such as female infanticide. I am not here to doubt any of those factors, but rather take a more clinical approach.

Dowry is an institution that has existed in our culture for many generations and like any other institution that has survived the test of time something about it provides a net addition to society - even if not immediately apparent. This piqued my curiosity and on further investigation realized that dowry might have played the important role of optimal wealth distribution.

Below are a few assumptions:

1. Consider the case of an isolated village with a primarily agrarian economy.
2. The ebb and flow of nature combined with the power of human will and ingenuity would cause an inequality of wealth amongst its members.
3. Presumably the most able (physically, mentally and emotionally) man would amass the most wealth.
4. Wealth is primarily measured in terms of land ownership, the prime capital in agrarian economies.
5. Women do not own the right to own land.

Let us consider the case where the most wealthy man in the community has a daughter who is of marriageable age and he has to find a suitable groom for her. Naturally, he would look for the man who is again the most able (physically, mentally and emotionally - largely determined by consensus within the community) to wed his daughter and ensure his progeny. He would then provide extra incentive for this alpha of the next generation to engage in wedlock with his daughter by giving him the maximum dowry.

This might just seem to be a familial matter, however there is a hidden impact on society at large. The higher dowry that is given to the more able man ensures that the maximum amount of resources is under the direct control of this man thereby promising wiser usage, greater productivity and increased wealth for all (the largest pieces of land controlled by the most able person in the community would lead to higher wages for all those who work on it).

If seen in this way, dowry seems to serve an important function of wealth transfer within the community, cleverly skipping the genetic component of ownership (the father of the bride, could, in theory give ALL his wealth to his able son-in-law while leaving nothing for his incompetent son). Furthermore, since the selection of the alpha of the next generation is an open process where the children within this closed community are constantly monitored by the adults, dowry in this case almost functions as a sort of 'pseudo-democracy' where the 'King' of every generation is 'elected' by common consensus within the community.

2 comments:

  1. I disagree that dowry was an instrument to just wealth distribution even if unintended. If it is a primarily agrarian community with marriage within relatives or almost relatives, then money/land does not have the same pull as in an individualistic, market driven community. I think giving dowry was more subtle and symbolic in effect. Perhaps power distribution to the able; the power to decide. But in the end it probably precipitated the best folks. So, in that way I agree.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Prasanna :)

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