The Economics of Male Preference

by W.F. Price on May 4, 2011

The neglect of baby girls in Asia is in the news again; these kinds of stories are somewhat popular in the West because they give us a sense of moral superiority while making us feel charitable at the same time. It is true that girls are neglected in Asia when compared to the West. However, this is an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon, and linked to age-old cultural practices that developed around subsistence farming. Male physical labor and technical know-how has always been more highly valued in those parts, because when it comes down to it men put more food on the table. It isn’t that women don’t bring anything to the table – I’ve seen Chinese women hard at work in rice paddies – it’s simply that pound for pound they don’t bring as much. Additionally, since these societies, like almost all societies in the world, are patrilocal, females generally leave when they reach adulthood and get married. Therefore, all that labor invested in raising them is lost.

The articles we see on this subject tend to focus mainly on dowries or other cultural idiosyncrasies, ignoring other, more important reasons for the higher discrepancy between male and female children in Asia when compared to the West:

Part of the reason Indians favor sons is the enormous expense in marrying off girls. Families often go into debt arranging marriages and paying elaborate dowries. A boy, on the other hand, will one day bring home a bride and dowry. Hindu custom also dictates that only sons can light their parents’ funeral pyres.

But it’s not simply that girls are more expensive for impoverished families. The census data shows that the worst offenders are the relatively wealthy northern states of Punjab and Haryana.

In Morena, a sun-baked, largely rural district in the heart of India, the numbers are especially grim. This census showed that only 825 girls for every 1,000 boys in the district made it to their sixth birthdays, down from an already troubling 829 a decade ago.

Though abortion is allowed in India, the country banned revealing the gender of unborn fetuses in 1994 in an attempt to halt sex-selective abortions. Every few years, federal and state governments announce new incentives from free meals to free education to encourage people to take care of their girls.

First, it should be pointed out in every one of these discussions that Asians naturally have an androphilic sex ratio at birth compared to Europeans, and especially compared to Africans. However, this doesn’t make up for all the excess boys, so it’s clear that there is some level of preference extended to infant boys. As the above passage suggests, better-off areas have a higher discrepancy, probably because families can afford ultrasound and abortion procedures. Keep in mind that “well-off” is relative in India — basically it means that you have electricity, a telephone and some minimal form of motorized transport.

Secondly, dowries have traditionally been a feature of European society as well, and I’ve never heard of female infanticide or neglect being a feature of pre-industrial Europe. And in China, bride price rather than dowry is the cultural norm, yet that hasn’t stemmed sex-selective abortion in rural China.

So, what is behind the apparent neglect and murder of female babies? The Chinese family planning initiative that began in the 1970s offers a clue. It is largely the introduction of birth control, abortion and family planning measures, enthusiastically promoted by clueless Western feminists who are too wrapped up in their own highly insular worldview to predict what consequences their programs will engender in ancient rural societies.

When there is a restriction on family size, families that would otherwise keep trying will manipulate the sex composition of births to have a son, which often means aborting daughters. Given the reality of life on the farm, condemning them for this is counterproductive, because sons are directly correlated with economic security, which is far more relevant to health and comfort than here in the West (if you are poor, no antibiotics, no surgery — you just suffer and die).

The government and feminist solution to this is socialist measures, which backfired in China and probably will in India as well:

In Morena, a Madhya Pradesh state government program offers poor families with one or two daughters a few thousand rupees (a few hundred dollars) for every few years of schooling, and more than 100,000 rupees ($2,250) when they graduate high school.

Ironically, socializing responsibility for women eventually leads to a society-wide adoption of male-preference. This is happening in the West as we speak. We often forget that the abusive American child-support guidelines adopted in the late 80s and 90s were largely a result of national outrage about “welfare queens” living off our dime. The burden for women’s welfare was rejected by most Americans, who gladly threw it onto the shoulders of hapless fathers, many of them blameless victims of circumstance who couldn’t afford it themselves. Today, groaning under the load of programs and preferences directed toward women, states are cutting women’s studies departments at universities, closing women’s shelters, and cutting benefits to women’s health services. The “misandry bubble” is nearing its bursting point; the widespread affluence that allowed feminism to thrive is becoming a thing of the past.

So, if socialism is ultimately doomed to failure, what solutions remain? And, in particular, we should ask what humane solutions we can implement.

There is only one rational means to increase the value of females in Asia, and, ultimately, our own society: encourage women to be productive, and create realistic opportunities for it.

In India light industry suitable for female work should be promoted in regions where girls are unappreciated, allowing them to earn some of their own income prior to marriage. Despite Western denunciations of “sweatshops” in China and SE Asia, the truth is that the factories around the Pearl River raised both the standard of living and status of girls in southern China. Both their parents and the men around them appreciated them more for their contribution to the wealth of the family. Although not up to Western standards yet, many parts of south China are thriving today, and it’s undeniable that women played a large role in bringing about this state of affairs.

But were these girls pampered and babied, and were preferences extended to them? Not at all. They were put to work and expected to produce, and they did. Since then, female infanticide and preference for male children has started to subside. Most urban Chinese are now content to have a daughter as their only child, and the imbalance in the sex ration has begun to correct itself.

Here in the West, we might want to start thinking about teaching girls home economics again, and offering courses in small business administration that could help them contribute to their future families’ welfare. Give them realistic goals rather than encourage them to become soldiers and engineers. Sure, there will always be exceptional girls who can match boys in primarily male professions, and they shouldn’t be held back, but focusing on the few to the neglect of many is counterproductive. Women have their strengths, and they should be encouraged to work to their potential, but trying to equalize everyone to the detriment of the majority of boys and girls alike is not only misandric — it is misanthropic.

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