The ‘Monopoly’ Board Game, Henry George, and the Land Value Tax

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I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence that the end of a game of Monopoly plays like something out of Progress and Povertybut I never bothered to look into it. Turns out the creator of Monopoly was a Henry George fan and a proponent of the land value tax:

Hardly cosmetic, the changes introduce a whole new animating ideology to a game created to critique, not celebrate, corporate America. Contrary to popular board game lore, Monopoly was invented not by an unemployed man during the Great Depression but in 1903 by a feminist who lived in the Washington, D.C., area and wanted to teach about the evils of monopolization. Her name was Lizzie Magie.

Seventeen years before women could vote, Ms. Magie, a fiery stenographer, poet, sometime actress and onetime employee of the United States Postal Service’s dead-letter office,ginned up a game that mirrored what she perceived to be the vast economic inequalities of her day. She called it the Landlord’s Game and saw it as an educational tool and gamy rebellion against the era’s corporate titans, John D. Rockefeller Sr., Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan.

Ms. Magie was an ardent follower of Henry George, who advocated a single tax on land. She cleverly designed two sets of rules: one in which the object was to get rich quick, the other as an anti-monopoly game in which all players benefited from wealth created. Historical evidence suggests that the more vice-laden monopolist game resonated with earlier players. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Ms. Magie told The Single Tax Review in 1902. “It might well have been called the Game of Life, 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 seem to have, i.e., the accumulation of wealth.”

As anyone who’s ever lost at Monopoly knows, once you sell all your properties and are doomed to circle the board with nothing but cash, you’re screwed! Everywhere you land, you have to pay somebody some money. The game is rigged in favor of the landowners, who just suck you dry and accumulate more and more wealth for no better reason than they own everything.

The returns to speculation – owning the title for land but not buying any houses for it – are not even as good in the game as we see in the real world though. In a Georgist dystopia, aka real life, if you owned all the green properties, the cost to someone landing on one of them would be higher than if you owned just one, even if you hadn’t built anything on any of them. And if you built some houses on two of the properties, the rent on the remaining unimproved property would increase too just by virtue of being next to the improved parcels.

Anybody who’s ever tried to rent an apartment in a trendy neighborhood that contains very little actual new construction has played Monopoly in real life.

Taxing the land value turns the tables on the monopolists. Instead of renters and new buyers paying the cost of speculation on unimproved land via inflated rents, that cost is paid by the speculators themselves through taxes on land value.

(via Mary Pilon)

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

3 Responses to The ‘Monopoly’ Board Game, Henry George, and the Land Value Tax

  1. Yup, an old story but worth re-telling. The irony is that every Monopoly game ends with arguments and rancour and resentment, pretty much as Lizzie Magie intended

  2. Pingback: 8. (2013 September) Good Press: Monopoly Board Game | Georgist News

  3. David Chester says:

    The shocking history of how the Landlords Game was developed into Monopoly and who benefited from it may be seen on many websites about board games as well as certain Georgist ones. Look for either “Landlords Game” or “The Game of Monopoly”