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The anti-capitalist origin of Monopoly

By Jack Flanagan

Monopoly wasn’t always a capitalist board game. Economic idealist Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie originally invented a board game in advocacy of increasingly forgettable left-wing economist Henry George. When all is said and done, Lizzie’s personal losses are less significant than her legacy: the creation of a board game which advocates, and not condemns, ruthless, bloodthirsty capitalism.

Elizabeth Magie

Elizabeth Magie was born in 1866, and spent her early professional life as an actress. She saw Henry George’s ideas as the answer to the increasing poverty gap in North America. It was George’s observation that wherever there was the most money, there were also the most poor people.

George was advocating something preempting, but notably different from, socialism. He believed that land tax cripples the people living there and gives an unfair profit to the land owners. The North American early-settlers-come-Oligarchs controlled the land through “a force which compels” – the initial settlement of the United States – not a “right which obliges”, in George’s own words. Put simply: landowners did nothing to earn the money they made off their land. Theirs ancestors mowed down the indigenous population and then taxed the new incumbents.

George thought this practice was inhumane. He proposed a “Single Tax” in which people would be their own landowners. He even ran for New York City mayor, making wild promises based on his land tax system.

He got neither the mayorship nor a reasonable stage for his ideas. Books and lectures later, while Magie of Illinois was approaching middle-age, George’s ideas were already withering away. Evidently, though, he had fans left.

The Landlord’s game

The game was distributed for free

The game was distributed for free

In 1903, Magie applied for a patent for “The Landlord’s Game”. The game was very similar to the Monopoly we have today. It had streets, utilities, a “luxury tax” and a “Go!” square which reads “Collect Your Wages. Mother Earth. Start Here”. It would take a few years, however, until the tactic of “monopolies”, land-grabbing, would make its way into the game. She also had one rule not found in the modern Monopoly game: the ability to cooperate. By adding in the ability to cooperate, she was driving home George’s lesson of one for all, and all for one. At least as far as land rent is concerned.

landlordsgame_2

We may never know Magie’s thoughts on the origin of her game: a woman named Patrice MacFarland owns her diaries and will not share them. She did, however, provide a letter through her attorney, stating that she disagreed with the way the Monopoly history has been presented in the press. It looks like nothing will be coming out of her for a longtime.

Whatever Magie’s thoughts were, we know what she did: she distributed the game for free. It became the property of anyone who could learn the rules of The Landlord’s game.

The aim of the game

The game was especially fashionable among the lingering Georgists, students and professors. And in Atlantic City, it came into the hands of Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman and petsitter.

Darrow saw the potential in the game. In fact, he admired the game so much he didn’t change a thing, except the name: Monopoly. He based the game on Atlantic City, and marketed it to the games company Parker Brothers. Magie’s two patents on the identical The Landlord’s Game were sold to them for a tiny sum, as she was unable to prove she invented the principles of the game. Only her diaries, secreted in the collection of Patrice MacFarland, could say what happened to her after that.

An original board, made from oil cloth

An original board, made from oil cloth

The rest is history. People were already aware of the concept of Monopoly, thanks to its liberal distribution by Magie. Graphic artists hired by Darrow created much of the game as we know it today: the red Go! arrow, the water-works faucet, the railroad.

You might think Magie, the economic activist, would have been happy about that. Unless you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly, in which cooperation is possible, but no one is under any illusions: the game is to win.

Which is sort-of the point of a game, isn’t it?

A lot of George’s initial brouhaha died down due to his radicalisation of his own Single Tax philosophy. Few could really get on board with it, and those that did were blinded by the promises he offered.

Magie’s idealism may well have been naive. She hoped that free distribution of the cooperative game would encourage George’s politics. Instead, she created the embryo of a game which today teaches that to win isn’t about having a lot of money, it’s about bankrupting everyone else.