Monopoly: a capitalist game with socialist roots

by Toby Manhire / 12 November, 2012
In The Landlord’s Game, you could play for prosperity for all.
There are few better popular metaphors for free-market capitalism than the board game Monopoly. It has acclaimed, as one commentator has put it, “the quintessential embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism: a competition within the unfettered free market, starting from a level playing field and allowing nature to take its course”.

And yet, believe it or not, Monopoly has lefty roots.

“The official history of Monopoly, as told by Hasbro, which owns the brand, states that the board game was invented in 1933 by an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow,” writes Christopher Ketcham in a fascinating, long essay for Harpers.

But the “true origins” of the game can be traced to 1903, when “a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie created a proto-Monopoly as a tool for teaching the philosophy of Henry George, a 19th-century writer who had popularised the notion that no single person could claim to ‘own’ land.”

It was called “The Landlord’s Game”, and “looked remarkably similar to what we know today as Monopoly”.

The game featured blocks of property, with purchase price and rental value, on a square track around the board. It had a luxury tax, and “Chance” cards with quotes from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Ruskin.

In The Landlord’s Game, which was “shared freely as an invention in the public domain”, you could aim to become “supermonopolist”, or all the players could “vote to do something not officially allowed in Monopoly: cooperate”, Christopher Ketcham writes.

“Under this alternative rule set, they would pay land rent not to a property’s title holder but into a common pot — the rent effectively socialised so that, as Magie later wrote, ‘Prosperity is achieved.’”
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