Conducting a wife auction seems like about the worst thing ever.
But what if there was one fundamental thing I told you.
What if everyone involved was a willing participant? And women had veto power over the sales?
It turns out that this was common practice “in Industrial Revolution England, For over a hundred years, from the early eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth.”
Why not just get divorced?
Under the law, at that time, women needed their husbands permission.
And guess what happened when the law changed?
That’s right, wife auctions went away too.
Wife auctions were another clever way that people used incentives and voluntary exchange to solve tough problems.
Inthis sense, wife sales were like the posting system, which leverages the buying power of MLB teams to facilitate bargains between Japanese baseball teams and their contracted players when players can’t buy themselves out. Just as the posting system aligns the incentives of Japanese teams, contracted Japanese talent, and American teams to enable player trades that benefit all involved, wife sales aligned the incentives of husbands, unhappy wives, and men seeking spouses to enable divorce trades that made all of their participants better off.
-Peter Leeson, WTF?! An Economic Tour Of The Weird