In the early days of exchange, humans mostly traded consumables like food or stone tools. There wasn’t much room for misrepresentation because what you saw was what you got.
The was one exception: Brides. In many ancient civilizations, families sold their unmarried daughters to prospective bridegrooms. Barbaric, I know.
A bride was often the biggest purchase a man would ever make (these days it’s a house). But there was no way to measure the quality of the good before buying. A bridegroom couldn’t exactly, uh, take a test drive. To further complicate things, the brides were selected and paid for before they reached marriageable age. It’s kind of like how Tesla Model 3’s require a reservation deposit two years before the expected delivery date.
To protect buyers in uncertain markets, tribes created procedures to prevent deceptive business practices that were eventually codified into law.
We’ll start with Ancient Sumer.
Laws of Ur-Namma, ca. 2100 BC
If a son-in-law enters the household of his father-in-law but subsequently the father-in-law gives his wife to his comrade, he shall weigh and deliver to the jilted son-in-law twofold the prestations brought.
That is, if a prospective groom pays for his bride in advance, but her father sells her to some other guy before the groom can come claim his wife, he gets double the purchase price as a refund. “Weigh and deliver” usually meant that the penalties were paid in silver or tin.
This law was to prevent fathers from double-spending their daughters.
Laws of Lipit-Ishtar, ca. 1930 BC
If a man’s first-ranking wife loses her attractiveness or becomes a paralytic, she will not be evicted from the house; however, her husband may marry a healthy second wife.
That seems awfully subjective, but who am I to criticize ancient legal codes.
Laws of Eshnunna, ca. 1770 BC
Should a member of the awilu class [free persons] bring the bridewealth to the house of his father-in-law – if either should go to his or her fate, the silver shall revert to its original owner.
If he marries her and she enters his house and then either the groom or the bride goes to his or her fate, he will not take out all that he had brought, but only its excess.
Per 1 shekel interest accrues at the rate of 36 barleycorns; per 300 silas interest accrues at the rate of 100 silas.
If a groom pays for his bride, and one of them dies before marriage, his family gets a refund. If one of them dies after marriage, his family gets a pro-rated refund. Silas (grain) accrued interest at a higher rate than silver; maybe that had something to do with inflation.
Today, we commonly see similar pro-rated warranties on automotive parts and home repairs.
On to Babylon.
Laws of Hammurabi, ca. 1750 BC
If a man who has the ceremonial marriage prestation brought to the house of his father-in-law, and who gives the bridewealth, should have his attention diverted to another woman and declare to his father-in-law, “I will not marry your daughter,” the father of the daughter shall take full legal possession of whatever had been brought to him.
If a man has the ceremonial prestation brought to the house of his father-in-law and gives the bridewealth, and the father of the daughter then declares, “I will not give my daughter to you,” he shall return twofold everything that had been brought to him.
It’s similar to the legal codes above. No cooling-off period, basically.
Middle Assyrian Laws, ca. 1076 BC Assur
If a man presents the bridal gift to his father-in-law’s house and although his wife is dead there are other daughters of his father-in-law, if he so pleases, he shall marry a daughter of his father-in-law in lieu of his deceased wife. Or if he so pleases, he shall take back the silver that he gave; they shall not give back to him grain, sheep, or anything edible, he shall receive only the silver.
If you pay for a bride and she dies, you can choose one of her sisters. Alternatively, you can have a refund of the full purchase price except for the grain and sheep. This is like a lifetime warranty.
Arthashastra, ca. 200 BC Maurya
Any person who has given a girl in marriage without announcing her guilt of having lain with another shall not only be punished with a fine of 96 panas, but also be made to return the sulka and strídhana. Any person receiving a girl in marriage without announcing the blemishes of the bridegroom shall not only pay double the above fine, but also forfeit the sulka and strídhana.
Now we get into laws concerning deceptive business practices. Husbands who unwittingly purchase used goods are entitled to a refund, and the state will levy a fine on top of that.
Interestingly, the law also protects the wife. If a groom turns out to have unannounced defects, he has to pay a fine — even though he was the one doing the buying. I wonder what it means to be defective. Maybe it’s referring to a husband who doesn’t put the toilet seat down, or forgets to take out the garbage.
If a person substitutes in marriage another maiden for the one he has before shown, he shall, if the substitute is of the same rank, be fined 100 panas, and 200 panas if she is of lower rank.
Don’t you hate it when you order one bride, only to receive a different one? In Genesis 29, Jacob worked for seven years to buy his cousin Rachel as a bride, except his uncle pulled a fast one and gave him Rachel’s ugly sister Leah instead.
It turns out this was a real enough problem that India had to formalize legal penalties to prohibit the practice of bridal bait and switch.
As legal codes evolved, they mostly reflected what was already customary practice.
It would be another several thousand years before George Akerlof published his model on information economics in “The Market for Lemons”. Information asymmetry between buyers and sellers can create messed-up incentives that cause markets to break down, particularly in the case of one-time purchases. In situations where the quality of a good is uncertain at time of purchase, fraud protection laws can help make business practices fair for both consumers and providers, ensuring peace and prosperity for all.