The Landlord’s Game


in Economics, Politics

Lee Jones, author of in vino veritas, recently posted a surprising statement about the origins of the game Monopoly, the best selling commercial board game in the world:

Monopoly was designed in 1903 by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie, who intended the game to highlight the evils of private property. Her version included squares like ‘Lord Bluebood’s Estate’ and ‘Soakum Electric Company’. A 1927 version stated in its rulebook:

“Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community’s wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer ‘skill’. Those who lose will answer ‘luck’. But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] ‘private property.’ “

Lee takes this as a demonstration of the power of capitalism to co-opt and subvert criticism (reach for your Gramsci everyone). This understanding also makes me think about Rousseau‘s statement that “”The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.”

One of the more obvious products of recent economic development has been a trend towards large increases in the income of the most well-off coupled with fairly modest ones for those of moderate income. This is true both internationally and within countries including Canada, Britain, and the United States. The willingness of people to tolerate that differential – whether justified by merit, libertarianism, or some other doctrine – would seem to hinge upon the same sorts of considerations as those which have transformed the societal understanding of the game of Monopoly.

PS. I wrote previously on executive pay and income inequality.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon February 9, 2007 at 6:24 pm

It seems that most games that people play are seperated from brutality and immorality mostly because they are taken to ‘just be games.’

R.K. February 9, 2007 at 9:04 pm

This match will determine once and for all which nation is the greatest on earth: Mexico or Portugal.

Chris February 13, 2007 at 2:08 pm

A distant memory of Foundations 103 reminds me of a philosopher who made some analogy about justice using sea shells….something about we can all receive equal sea shells but would naturally trade them differently based on how we value things differently, leading to a non-uniform distribution of sea shells (because people are non-uniform), but the name of the philosopher, his text, and all the rest are lost in the ether

Milan February 13, 2007 at 2:14 pm


Perhaps the example was meant to illustrate Pareto Optimality – in which free exchanges eventually lead to the most utility generating distribution possible without coercion, and also without any central coordination.

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