How Monopoly Was Invented to Demonstrate the Evils of Capitalism

By Kate Raworth, a senior visiting research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and a senior associate at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. She is the author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (2017). Reposted from Alternet.

‘Buy land – they aren’t making it any more,’ quipped Mark Twain. It’s a maxim that would certainly serve you well in a game of Monopoly, the bestselling board game that has taught generations of children to buy up property, stack it with hotels, and charge fellow players sky-high rents for the privilege of accidentally landing there.

The game’s little-known inventor, Elizabeth Magie, would no doubt have made herself go directly to jail if she’d lived to know just how influential today’s twisted version of her game has turned out to be. Why? Because it encourages its players to celebrate exactly the opposite values to those she intended to champion.

Born in 1866, Magie was an outspoken rebel against the norms and politics of her times. She was unmarried into her 40s, independent and proud of it, and made her point with a publicity stunt. Taking out a newspaper advertisement, she offered herself as a ‘young woman American slave’ for sale to the highest bidder. Her aim, she told shocked readers, was to highlight the subordinate position of women in society. ‘We are not machines,’ she said. ‘Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition.’

In addition to confronting gender politics, Magie decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership – this time not through a publicity stunt but in the form of a board game. The inspiration began with a book that her father, the anti-monopolist politician James Magie, had handed to her. In the pages of Henry George’s classic, Progress and Poverty (1879), she encountered his conviction that ‘the equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence’.

Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighbourhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.

Determined to prove the merit of George’s proposal, Magie invented and in 1904 patented what she called the Landlord’s Game. Laid out on the board as a circuit (which was a novelty at the time), it was populated with streets and landmarks for sale. The key innovation of her game, however, lay in the two sets of rules that she wrote for playing it.

Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes. ‘It might well have been called “The Game of Life”,’ remarked Magie, ‘as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seems to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.’

The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.

So next time someone invites you to join a game of Monopoly, here’s a thought. As you set out piles for the Chance and Community Chest cards, establish a third pile for Land-Value Tax, to which every property owner must contribute each time they charge rent to a fellow player. How high should that land tax be? And how should the resulting tax receipts be distributed? Such questions will no doubt lead to fiery debate around the Monopoly board – but then that is exactly what Magie had always hoped for.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

26 comments

  1. Questa Nota

    Community Chest, what a concept! Future antiquarians will marvel at the simplicity and decency of a bygone era.

    Chance? Fat chance. Go directly to Student Loan Jail, one of many options now available.

    Brother, can ya spare a dime? Mom, Dad, what is a dime?

    1. Ralph Reed

      I was bumming money for Bugler home-made cigarette tobacco that cost 89 cents in Atlanta with a self-identified hobo in 1992 and he diverted me from my demoralization by asking me “what are the two plants depicted” on the back of a 10-cent piece after informing me it was a way hoboes proved they weren’t poseurs. To my chagrin I wasn’t able to name them.

      Subsequently I’ve asked hundreds over the years and only been given the correct answer once. No “googlin’.”

  2. rOn cOn cOMa

    If my mother had known that Monopoly had been devised by a feminist socialist then we would have played it more on family game nights.

  3. Mikerw0

    Really neat piece of history. Interesting how a corporate interest lied back then. Who would have thought.

    1. kirk seidenbecker

      Being a Georgist was/is explicitly not being socialist (although they were/are deeply empathetic to labor’s exploitation)….George narrowed in on addressing the concept of economic rent (unearned income) and thus his book ‘Progress & Poverty’, having been outsold by only the bible after it was first published, was a huge threat to the vested interests… this is why he was/is buried by TPTB and the same reason Michael Hudson is not well known like Paul Krugman is today…. George did believe in earned income tho…. in technical macro jargon, Georgists endorse an analysis of the capital transformation problem.

      1. Soredemos

        IIRC Marx was highly dismissive of George, basically saying he was offering a band-aid solution rather than addressing more fundamental problems.

        Michael Hudson doesn’t have much positive to say about George either.

        1. kirk seidenbecker

          Yet one of the nuts of Hudson’s overall analysis is privatized economic rent being a deadweight loss burdening social arrangements…

    2. Carla

      “But it was Charles Darrow that made the millions in spite of swiping other people’s work”

      Rev Kev, I doubt it was “in spite of swiping other people’s work.” I think that’s what many millionaires do to make “their” money.

      1. Kengferno

        For more about the history of Monopoly (and also Anti-Monoply) see Mary Pilons’ book, The Monopolists. Fun stuff.

  4. NotTimothyGeithner

    I don’t know if its in the original rules before the modern game, but one aspect of game design doesn’t make sense: the number of houses versus hotels and a rule that won’t allow new tokens to be added despite a rule allowing for the bank to have unlimited money. What are you going to lose? Houses or hotels? The houses of course? So why are they less? The goal is to monopolize the houses because its the shortage one can monopolize. You don’t have to upgrade to hotels. There is a lesson about urbanization in there too.

    1. OKnotKO

      Interesting, I’ve heard that’s basically how to win the game and annoy everyone in the process. Use up the supply of houses as soon as possible then there are no physical house tokens left.

  5. magila gorilla

    Always loved this story. Bitcoin is its 21st Century incarnation. On a long enough time horizon finite supply of coins (like the finite supply of money included in your monopoly set and finite supply of properties) will amass to a single player. Ergo infinite money printing is a good thing.

  6. ian

    I used to play this with friends on summer vacations in high school. We took the normal rules of the game and extended them to include ‘rent-free agreements’ (a player agrees to forego rent for so many trips around the board in exchange for an up-front payment) and cartels, pooling properties to enable building houses and hotels. We had so much fun with all that.
    If the purpose of the game was to illustrate the evils of capitalism, it failed miserably.

    1. Robert Gray

      > I used to play this with friends on summer vacations in high school. We took the normal rules of the game
      > and extended them …

      Everybody who has ever played this game more than occasionally has extended the fun by adding ‘unwritten’ rules. The best I ever heard of, irrefutably logical in a ‘game’ of monopoly capitalism, is to steal anything and everything, whenever you can. :-)

  7. Gregory Etchason

    I played hours of Monopoly with neighborhood children during the hot summer months.
    I think back even as children we were offended by the rules. So we made our own rules.
    All of the property cards were shuffled and dealt out to all players. Then all of the money was split evenly amongst all 4 players. Then the game began by a long period of wheeling, dealing and trading the property amongst our selves. Then when all the deals were done we rolled the dice. I discovered the railroads were key to victory. I would trade away and spend money to get all 4 Railroads. You had 4 chance to collect money with every trip around the board. I won 90% of the time with 4 Railroads. The other kids soon got wise and formed a Cartel of sort and made sure no one got all 4 Railroads. I think the key to our joy was eliminating the “Bank”🤣

  8. Desmond

    Socialism = Theft by the many of those who work through taxation.

    Capitalism = Theft by the few of those who work through rents.

    Solution =

    1. Do away with all taxation except corporate taxation. The government doesn’t really need it. They can create money from thin air.

    2. Do away with stocks/bonds/derivatives.

    3. Cap income to $200k-300k/year for any individual and cap corporate profits at $250k times the number of employees/contractors employed. The remaining profits must be kept as cash on hand, reinvested in the company or given to charity.

    4. Reduce bureaucracy to the bare minimum for society to remain stable and functional.

    5. Ensure every adult works according to their ability.

    6. Teach real skills in public school.

    7. Public investment in infrastructure.

    8. Public investment in affordable housing.

    9. Promote good-natured competition rather than cut-throat competition.

    10. Stop supporting foreign governments/corporations/etc.

  9. Ian Ollmann

    > The government doesn’t really need it. They can create money from thin air.

    Part of the problem is that without taxes, some part of the private sector will find a hole to bury ever increasing amounts of money in. Today, that would be the stock market, but they will find something else, like bank accounts that you haven’t banned. In times of crisis, these dark pools of money reemerge into the economy in an attempt to buy salvation for some at the expense of everyone else.

    For example, let’s say some nightmare global warming scenario plays out and temperatures rise above 140°F for most places for a few weeks in the summer. This is beyond human survivability (without A/C or more unusual measures) so is going to be hell on most people and death for many, especially the poor. It is also going to cause a lot of problems for agriculture.

    The person who has been squirreling away money for years now has an option that the rest do not. He can hop on a jet plane in April and fly to Patagonia to live in his resort villa there for 6 months, and fly back to northern climes in October. For him, the killer summers never happen. He can be productive 52 weeks / year. As long as he can also buy air conditioned greenhouse food (at significant expense!) there is no particular reason why global warming needs to mean much to him. For everyone else, though, it is a matter of life and death, potentially.

    This is why there is progressive taxation. Without it, savings become a problem. The government can print around its limitations due to artificial money scarcity due to excess savings, but that doesn’t do anything about the large piles of money lying around that allow the wealthy to simply outspend everyone else and buy priority for scarce life saving equipment (covid respirators?) when times get tough.

    1. Yves Smith

      You are confusing government spending with Fed asset purchases, which are not “money printing” but asset swaps and goose asset prices.

      And spending can be progressive. The US has moderately progressive taxation but regressive spending.

  10. Charles 2

    Thank you for this post. It is a gem. BTW, How about a “All times great” Tag/Topic ? This one would make the cut IMO.

  11. ChrisPacific

    This cleared up a lot of questions about the game for me when I first heard it. Turns out that when a game ends in tears and recriminations, that’s by design!

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