Friday, October 11, 2013

A Reminder that Small, Self-Governing Communities Can Be Very, Very Nasty

Divorce is never easy. But state laws throughout the US provide reasonable institutionalized processes by which either party to an unhappy marriage can get out. For Hasidic Jews in New York, however, the rules for divorce are different than for the rest of us. For example, a wife who wants to divorce her husband (for any reason, including abuse), must obtain the husband's permission in the form of a document known as a "get." In other words, the husband in a Hasidic marriage holds a veto power, which in effect makes him sovereign over the marriage.

This institutional arrangement is so obviously out of step (that is, it lacks "fit") with other fundamental attributes of Americanism, including individual autonomy and equal rights (especially for women) that it should be abolished. But so long as it persists, how are Hasidic wives to get out of abusive or otherwise unhappy marriages?

Rabbis, as community leaders, can serve as advocates for wives, counseling, even urging, husbands to issue gets. But the decision remains firmly with the husband, who can choose to ignore the rabbi. To solve that problem, a new market apparently has arisen, in which abused or unhappy wives pay rabbis to abduct and torture their husbands to extract (or extort) the get. According to CBS News (here), a New York Police sting operation infiltrated the illicit market in Hasidic husband torture. Two Hasidic rabbis are under arrest for kidnapping and torturing husbands, using "'electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs, and ... plastic bags' placed over the heads of husbands to force them into granting their wives a divorce." The price for the service, which included the services of "two enforcers," was $60,000 to $70,000.

Evidently, the transaction costs of at least some Hasidic divorces are very, very high mainly because of the husband's (unilateral) veto power. This story contrasts sharply with well-known story, told by law and economics scholars, that high levels of trust and internal dispute-resolution mechanisms within close-knit Hasidic communities, reduce transaction costs (including principal-agent problems) among Hasidic diamond merchants (see, e.g., here). It is clear that small, self-governing communities do not only reduce transaction costs for members, but can raise them to very high levels, depending on the institutional context.

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