November 19: it’s Play Monopoly Day!
By Steve Geller, 11/19/23
I’ve never owned the game of Monopoly, but I’ve played it many times with friends. Before playing, it’s important to learn each friend’s specific house rules. “Taxes and fees accrue on Free Parking.” “Jailed players cannot collect rent.” “Land exactly on GO and get an additional bonus.” “Uneven house building is allowed.” “Special rules apply to using the speed die.” With my favorite house rule, half of the properties are randomly selected, and auctioned off at the beginning of the game. This variation adds much skill to a game otherwise based on luck. Should I spend all of my money early in the auction, or save it for later? Should I watch everyone else overbid, saving money until I’m the only one who can bid on remaining properties? Should I try for a monopoly in “light blue” properties, or save up to bid on Boardwalk?
Always educational… or indoctrinating?
The reason for the large variety of house rules never occurred to me until I began researching Monopoly. The players are trying to make the game “fun,” though that was never the game’s primary goal. Monopoly was originally “The Landlord’s Game,” designed in 1904 as an educational tool. It showed that a concentration of property ownership causes and perpetuates wealth inequality. The landlords get richer and the poor get poorer. The game taught the ideas of economist Henry George, who advocated taxing land to attain an equitable distribution of wealth. As the original inventor, Lizzie Magie had actually designed two sets of rules. In one set, each player’s wealth accrual helped everyone else. In the other, the goal was for one player to bankrupt the rest of the table. The objective was to show that the former model was infinitely more beneficial to a society.
However, when Parker Brothers acquired the game in 1935, they only published its monopolistic version. The focus had shifted from one of learning economic theory to a perverse celebration of monopolies and bankruptcies. Today, the cheers at the table predominantly occur when someone lands on a hotel and must pay more money than they can afford. Without the educational component, the game offers no incentive mechanism beyond ruthless domination, so that’s what we root for. Actually, the objective of the current game of Monopoly is still educational. However, in teaching the virtues of a winner-take-all form of capitalism, it might rather be termed indoctrination.
Marketing has been partially responsible — people more excitedly identify with affable mascot Rich Uncle Pennybags than with being a landlord. But changes in our political system have also contributed. Since the Supreme Court essentially green lit bribery of public officials in the 1970’s, politicians have prioritized business interests and ignored the concerns of workers. This was a huge departure from the New-Deal era, when the public viewed monopolies more antagonistically. Since the late 1970’s, productivity has increased 3.5 times more than wages. Billionaire Warren Buffett wrote in 2013 that none of his office staff paid a higher tax rate than he did. Before the “Greed is Good” 1980’s, these developments would have been unthinkable.
But the game did warn us of this dystopia. Houses are scarce, so expert players hoard them as early as possible. Nearly every turn, the game exacerbates the poverty of some players, which soon results in permanent destitution. Meanwhile, the wealthy continue collecting rent, even during a rare stay in jail. In fact, the wealthy can more comfortably buy their way out of jail than can the impoverished. We opt for house rules so readily because the game (and by extension, our economic system) is so unbearably bleak without them. The person with the most early luck has an ever-widening advantage unless all players agree on countermeasures. As one example, placing a heap of money on Free Parking can provide a glimmer of marginal optimism in a cruel, dark world.
Paul Piff’s Monopoly Experiment
If we ever needed assurance that we can’t rely on the powerful to help, psychologist Paul Piff’s Monopoly Experiment provides confirmation. During the experiment, a coin flip made one player “rich,” and the other “poor.” The “rich” player received more money, more dice to roll, a higher salary on passing GO, and other perks. The “rich” player typically began celebrating loudly and taunting the poor player. After inevitably winning, the “rich” player credited their skill and acumen, ignoring the fact that the game was rigged in their favor as a result of pure luck.
If this experiment reflects on real life, the rich believe that they deserve their success; they don’t see inequality as a problem that an optimal society should mitigate. When politicians only listen to their richest donors, they won’t sympathize with the average person’s struggles. They only hear from people who rationalize their success as being meritocratic, ignoring other factors (such as being born into wealth).
Improving the real world
In the current system, a tiny number of companies control nearly all of our corn seeds, credit cards, airline flights, online searches, and other commodities. We deal with crises like homelessness as in the Monopoly world, where people just lose everything and watch the remaining competitors play from afar. Office-holders seem to be up for auction to the highest bidder. In a more equitable system, we could break up these monopolies or quasi-monopolies, greatly improving the lives of most of our citizenry. We would then have a representative government, rather than one available for purchase, like Boardwalk.
A 28th Amendment makes a better world possible
Wolf-PAC is seeking an amendment to get special-interest money out of politics, so that we can better approximate the original Landlord’s Game ideal — one where everyone thrives together instead of just congratulating one all-powerful winner. Join us today, and let’s …er, …GO.
The Wolf-PAC all-volunteer Communications Team helped produced this work, including editing by Debbie Augustine and Brian Martel.
- Abdelfatah, R. (2023, February 20). The story of “Monopoly” and American capitalism. NPR. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/2022/06/29/1108728257/do-not-pass-go
- Brancaccio, D., & Conlon, R. (2021, March 11). Why rich people tend to think they deserve their money. Marketplace. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.marketplace.org/2021/01/19/why-rich-people-tend-think-they-deserve-their-money/
- Buffett, W. E. (2013, February 7). Stop coddling the Super-Rich. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/stop-coddling-the-super-rich.html?_r=1 EPI Staff. (2022, October). The Productivity–Pay gap. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/#:~:text=From%201979%20to%202020%2C%20net,another%20important%20piece%20of%20information.
- EPI Staff. (2022, October). The Productivity–Pay gap. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/#:~:text=From%201979%20to%202020%2C%20net,another%20important%20piece%20of%20information
- Mauldin, J. (2019, April 11). America Has A Monopoly Problem. Forbes. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmauldin/2019/04/11/america-has-a-monopoly-problem/?sh=59bc6eb92972
- McGuigan, B. (2023, September 10). What is Georgism? Smart Capital Mind. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.smartcapitalmind.com/what-is-georgism.htm