Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Ironies of Monopoly.

An extraordinary article by Christopher Ketcham, from Harper's Magazine, on the history of the popular board game Monopoly (h/t Occasional Links & Commentary), which I highly recommend.

Henry George (1839-1897) at 26,
American political economist. [A]
It turns out that the game was invented in 1903 by a largely forgotten Maryland actress, by the name of Lizzie Magie, as a device to teach the thought of Henry George, the once popular American reformist socialist who intended to bring about his own brand of socialism by taxing landowners, while abolishing all other taxes.

Although Magie conceived the basic idea, by the time her version of the game (called the Landlord's Game) began to be commercialized, gamers had spread and further developed the game, until its putative inventor, Charles Darrow, finally learned of it and marketed his own homemade sets, sought and received patent and sold the rights to game publisher Parker Brothers:
"Sometime in 1932, Darrow copied the layout of the board, the rules of play, the property names, the deed values, and the Chance cards, and made his own version of the game. His only innovation seems to have been to claim the mantle of sole inventor. He would soon be assumed into the pantheon of American heroes of commerce."
Apart from the irony in this ending, the narrative is enriched by a wealth of fascinating details: some magnificent quotations (Andrew Carnegie: "The greatest astonishment of my life was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich"), anecdotes and descriptions from a Monopoly tournament, a fascinating footnote on the work of Michael Hudson. There are also passing references to Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy and Marx.


There were Marxists among George's followers. Some of them wrote enthusiastically to Marx, praising George and his writings.

Marx was not impressed, however:
"All these 'socialists' (...) have this much in common that they leave wage labour and therefore capitalist production in existence and try to bamboozle themselves or the world into believing that if ground rent were transformed into a state tax all the evils of capitalist production would disappear of themselves".
Considering how the article describes the end of the movement, he might have had a point:
"By the time of his death in 1897, when 100,000 New Yorkers lined up to view his body in state, George's 'great idea' was already, as Tolstoy would lament in 1908, on the long road to being forgotten".
But Marx considered that not all the effort was wasted:
"On the other hand George's book, like the sensation it has made with you, is significant because it is a first, if unsuccessful, attempt at emancipation from the orthodox political economy".
I'd add that George's followers, while misguided, meant well. Their efforts and creativity, if ultimately fruitless, deserved better and are to be commended.

Image Credits:
[A] Henry George (1839-1897) at 26, American political economist. Wikipedia.

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