Monopoly's Anti-Capitalist Origins When "Go" used to say "Labor upon Mother Earth produces wages"

Illustration by Slug Signorino

I heard the original Monopoly game, before Parker Brothers took it over, was designed to teach people how broken capitalism is. Is that true? —Matt

Yes, it’s more or less true, although you have to ask: Who needs a game to understand how screwed up capitalism is when all you have to do is read the news? Be that as it may, I convened the Straight Dope staff to play several versions of proto-Monopoly. Their review: nothing like the socialists to make the capitalists look good.

The earliest recognizable version of what we know as Monopoly was patented by Lizzie Magie in 1903. The Landlord’s Game, as she called it, featured a board with the familiar circuit of increasingly pricey neighborhoods interspersed with railroads and utilities. At three of the corners were Go to Jail, Public Park (the ancestral version of Free Parking), and the Jail itself.

The fourth corner, however, wasn’t labeled “Go” but instead bore a drawing of the globe encircled by the lofty words “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Translation: you got a hundred bucks. Nonetheless you realize that someone here has an agenda.

The story goes that Magie intended her game to be a teaching tool about the injustices of capitalism. She was a fan of the theories of political economist Henry George, who thought landlords were parasites and advocated a “single tax” on them to replace all other taxes.

You’re thinking: What an exciting premise for a board game! Depends on how it’s handled. If the idea was that the players, beaten down by exorbitant rents, were supposed to rise up and feed their evil landlord’s intestines to him with a fork, this might indeed make for a diverting family game night.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the player who accumulated the most money won. How does this teach us about the dark side of capitalism? Search me. All we can suppose is that in 1903 Magie’s political thinking, or anyway her approach to agitprop, wasn’t fully formed. Perhaps she thought referring to money paid for food, shelter, etc., as “indirect taxation” rather than “expenses” would impart profound lessons in economics. If so, ma’am, I have to tell you that probably went over the average player’s head.

Magie eventually tumbled to the pedagogical shortcomings of her invention. Her 1924 patent for a second version of The Landlord’s Game explicitly said one objective was showing “how the single tax would discourage land speculation.” The rules now showed more attitude. For example, when throwing the Chance cube, a five meant you’d been “caught robbing a hen-roost—go to jail,” whereas a 10 meant you’d been “caught robbing the public—take $200 from the board. The players will now call you Senator.” Ha!

Two new concepts were introduced in the 1924 edition. Idle Land could be bought for $100 and sold for $200, showing the easy money in land speculation. The other novelty was Monopoly, which at this point applied only to railroads: If you owned all of them, you could charge twice as much. Magie thought this would teach the proletariat that monopolies and land speculation were wicked. However, since the goal was still to wind up with the most money, a more obvious lesson might have been that monopolies and land speculation were great.

As the capitalist frenzy of the ’20s continued unabated, Magie undoubtedly thought her plan wasn’t working, and gave it one more try. She unveiled a combo game in 1932 called The Landlord’s Game plus Prosperity. Prosperity was played on the same board but with modified rules. Taxes, jail, and monopoly pricing were now eliminated; land rent was paid to the public treasury; once enough treasury cash accumulated, private utilities were condemned and placed in public ownership. Most importantly, players could vote to switch from Landlord to Prosperity rules in midgame. Now those chafing under the capitalist yoke (i.e., losing) could wise up, go socialist, and take over.

You can guess how well that went. In our clinical trials, my assistant Fierra quickly figured out how to game the system and make money off railroad nationalization. Her fellow staffer Una discovered using the railroads to take you to real estate offices and treat them as “free parking” was a safe way to get around the board. Mainly, though, the players were frustrated and bored. After 10 minutes, Fierra exclaimed, “Dear God, this bloody game sucks!”

People evidently felt the same in 1932. Magie’s latest brainstorm went nowhere. A few years later, in the best capitalist tradition, Charles Darrow ripped off Magie’s ideas, sold Monopoly to Parker Brothers, and became a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Stalins of the earth turned out not to be playing Prosperity, as some naifs thought, but rather Totalitarian World Domination, which endured for quite a while.

—Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.

Our Readers Say

Might I send you to a letter to the editor in the Financial Times, and then to the article to which it was responding, about Hong Kong? See http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5e123b0a-4dd9-11e0-85e4-00144feab49a.html#axzz1Ga74vnpG

I guess capitalism as we currently practice it is working well for you and yours, and all within your larger circle? And it is your sense that capitalism as we currently practice it is working well for our society as a whole?

Lizzie Magie's "Prosperity Rules" may not produce an exciting game night, but they do lead to widely shared prosperity and sustainability. And isn't that what we're after?
Maybe she just assumed that the game required one person to win everything, and everyone else to go bankrupt, would provide an obvious social message: monopolies are bad for society at large. Admittedly, she failed in this regard. The fact that it's a board game that could be replayed and restarted from scratch the following day, just makes one want to "get em next time," and play with ever greater vindictiveness against those who have defeated you. There is no time for social reflection at the end of the game.

It would be more accurate if whoever won the first game controlled the same amount of wealth next time you opened the box. And whoever ended broke started broke. That sure wouldn't sell well though!
Poorly written first sentence in the above comment -- I meant, "Maybe she just assumed that because the game required one person to win everything, and everyone else to go bankrupt, it would provide an obvious social message: monopolies are bad for society at large."
What a bunch of bull**** I guess the socialist have it down with their bankruptcies and the communists really have it down..oh wait...they're not around any more either.
I don't think the lesson was meant to be learned by the winner with the most money, but by the anger felt by the losers at the random chance and injustice inherent in the game.
LVTFan - Oh? How are Chile, Argentina, Poland, Greece doing as a result of implementing free-market capitalism?

A recession you say? Massive cuts to public services and disability benefits you say? No... That can't be true.
It also teaches you how, if your the banker, you most likely are going to cheat. Come on! Who here was the banker and never slipped yourself a couple 100's? Don't lie.
I agree with Sam. The obvious point of the game was not that the game encourages a 'win at all costs' mentality, but that it shows that to produce one winner, everyone else must go bankrupt.
I have two friends. Phil, who used to go to parties few times a week in college, did not worry about studying, had a cool mustang. The other one is Matt, who studied and participated in research and did his best to get a lot out of college.

After 10 years from graduation, what I heard from friends about Phil is that he goes out to the south area of the Seattle protesting for anti-capitalism, and how the system is messed up.

Matt is now a director of engineering in one of the startup company and has family paying mortgages every month without problem.
Capitalism is all about 'you get what you worked for'. Spending whole life in high school and college playing and partying and blaming the system at their 30s or 40s just seems to be very irresponsible.

All the people, doctors, accountants, engineers studied and raised their skills in schools. They studied even if they wanted to play and spend some money on goods.

You get what you worked for in capitalism.
Sounds like one heck of a plan to me man, Wow.
www.u-privacy.tk
An Alternative to Capitalism (since we cannot legislate morality)

Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: "There is no alternative". She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: "Home of the Brave?" which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/steinsvold.htm

John Steinsvold

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."~ Albert Einstein
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the article states "Who needs a game to understand how screwed up capitalism is when all you have to do is read the news? "
however, this is not true.

what we have now is not true capitalism. capitalism is actually not screwed up. we have a system now with bailouts, and big government interfering with regulations into the marketplace. in real capitalism there are no bailouts, and companies fail with out government getting involved to favor some over others with taxpayer money.

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