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402px-BoardGamePatentMagiePoetic injustice!

The forerunner to monopoly was intended to demonstrate the evils of …well, monopoly. It was particularly intended to show the long-term consequences of private land ownership in America, and one of the games more interesting features included an option to pay rent into a community pot instead of private landowners. Needless to say, that is not the game we play today.

If Elizabeth Magie intended the Landlord’s Game to illustrate the evils of a real estate market, the end result of her efforts has been a century of people celebrating that very thing. When all the dice of rolled and all the mice have been moved, the end result of this game is one player joyously happy with his acquisition of everything in sight. Far from mourning their own financial tragedy, the losers are often eager to start again, each hoping be the bad-ass rich-guy the next time around.

Christopher Ketcham detailed the evolution of Magie’s creation into the modern game of Monopoly last year. As Ketcham makes very clear, the modern version of Monopoly celebrates precisely what The Landlord’s game decries, but that is not merely something as simple as the ‘free market’ or ‘capitalism’; it is rather the defeat of the market by the development of propertied interests:

A few weeks before the tournament, I’d had a conversation with Richard Marinaccio, the 2009 U.S. national Monopoly champion. “Monopoly players around the kitchen table”—which is to say, most people—“think the game is all about accumulation,” he said. “You know, making a lot of money. But the real object is to bankrupt your opponents as quickly as possible. To have just enough so that everybody else has nothing.” In this view, Monopoly is not about unleashing creativity and innovation among many competing parties, nor is it about opening markets and expanding trade or creating wealth through hard work and enlightened self-interest, the virtues Adam Smith thought of as the invisible hands that would produce a dynamic and prosperous society. It’s about shutting down the marketplace. All the players have to do is sit on their land and wait for the suckers to roll the dice.

Smith described such monopolist rent-seekers, who in his day were typified by the landed gentry of England, as the great parasites in the capitalist order. They avoided productive labor, innovated nothing, created nothing—the land was already there—and made a great deal of money while bleeding those who had to pay rent. The initial phase of competition in Monopoly, the free-trade phase that happens to be the most exciting part of the game to watch, is really about ending free trade and nixing competition in order to replace it with rent-seeking.

What strikes me most about the passage above is just how much more subtle it is than common notions of equity guiding popular (and particularly conservative) media. Today’s defenders of the free market are tone deaf to any real difference between the creative bargaining characterizing the early phase of a Monopoly game from the rent-vacuuming process that comes to define its actual victory. I cannot help but wonder if this isn’t to some degree because much of Libertarian thought is actually a defense Aristocracy, a calculated holding action against anyone who might have noticed the game in America (and the world) has long entered the phase at which a final outcome is clear so to speak. The creative possibilities which may have defined the early growth of market economies have long since given way to a process wherein we all simply watch the wealthy take their profits.

…from us.

When I hear people defending the free market, I see little sense for such distinctions. Too often, such folks advance a vision of equity summed up in the phrase “equal at the starting gate.’ It is a mantra used most often to hold off affirmative action, progression taxation, and any number of attempts to help those on the losing end of the market, and it is a mantra that reassures us of the basic fairness of equal treatment under the law. It is a mantra that calls to mind that early moments in a monopoly game; the ones in which ever player can still imagine the possibilities, still see themselves as a potential winner.

The phrase “equal at the starting gate” could only apply to the outset of something, but in economics, there simply is no starting gate. The production of inequality is always an ongoing process into which each of us is dropped and out of which each of us will be taken without any real resolution of the game, so to speak.

This is one respect in which the game of Monopoly absolutely fails to illustrate the nature of capitalism; it doesn’t show people living with the consequences of inequality. It doesn’t emulate a life lived in the red so much as the struggle to achieve a life lived in the black (preferably including Park Place). Perhaps that is one reason for the success of monopoly; whatever its original intent, it has proven to be time-honored promotional piece for the social orders embodied in modern capitalism. For a little while, anyone with a few good die rolls and a smart purchase can be captain of commerce, and to most people that sounds pretty cool.

In real life, we don’t get to start over. We just keep right on playing long after some folks have bought up the world around us, and the frustration of paying fees with every step you take and falling further behind with every turn becomes for many a forgone conclusion. That sense that comes toward the end of a losing game, the moment you realize that your money will be going to another player until it’s over thus becomes an absolute reality from the cradle to the grave, …just add the urgency of food, medical bills, and any hope of accomplishing anything before death itself tells you it’s time to leave the table.

But of course the game goes on.

And the child of yesterday’s winner does not start with the same bank as those who lost to him. Indeed generations upon generations simply keep building up their leverage over the total market and those who start with nothing can count on little comfort from rules that supposedly treat them just the same as the guy with all the cash. In the real world, we do not begin with equal cash and equal opportunities. In the real world player A begins with millions and player B begins with a few thousand Player C starts in debt, and Player D has a few hundred.

There now start rolling the dice!

USA-LandlordsGame-1904-Thomas-Forsight-largeBut the prospect of using Monopoly to comment on economic realities remains interesting, if only as a thought experiment. To model the actual market, we have to add a few other quirks to our Monopoly Game.

Let us take out Millionaire (Player A), name him Joe (Donald would be just too obvious!). Our several thousand-air, we shall call Anne (Player B). The poor chap who started in debt (player C) we shall call Ralph, and the almost-lucky gal with a few hundred we will call Marcy (Player D).

The first thing we have to do is connect the differences in wealth to differences in the health and education of the participants. For this purpose, we’ll will show Ralph and Marcy only about half the rules. The rest they will half to figure out the hard way. It is tempting to model inadequate health care by making Ralph sit on a thumb-tack and forcing Marcy to slam a couple of Long Island Ice Teas just before the start of the game, but that would be just cruel. So let’s just go with the incomplete rule thing. Now when our less privileged players make mistakes on account of their lack of knowledge, Joe will no doubt make fun of them, or at least laugh when his smart-assed buddy Rush makes fun of them from a spot across the room. Anne may not be so mean, but both she and Joe will no doubt count their mistakes against them when Marcy and Ralph end up doing poorly. To complete the analogy here, let us just imagine that Joe’s friend Billy will sit through the whole game provide a full-time commentary on just how bad Marcy and Ralph are at the game. Billy is of course quite the wit.

…is friends usually just call him ‘Fox’.

But it’s worse than that, because of course all of this assumes that the rules are set in stone. Not a chance! No the rules of play are constantly evolving. We have to model that somehow, and we want to be totally fair about it, so each of the players gets to vote on a single rule change every so often (say after each player has taken a turn). Of course a democratic rule process would make each of their votes count equally, but we have to find some way to model the impact of the media and campaign finances, personal connections, etc. So, we’ll just say that you can get an extra vote for every $250.00 you put back in the bank. Marcy and Ralph will soon have a host of rules working against them, and they will no doubt complain about the unfairness of each such rule, at which point Billy will call them ‘special interests’, and another commentator named Antonin will be happy to explain that the rule-making process must be allowed to continue unfettered by anyone pretentious enough to think she might know fair from figs.

I suppose we should add another spectator named John who will be happy to tell Anne that she shouldn’t help Marcy out; that would be enabling bad play.

If we want to get really serious about this, then we have to find a way to replicate the laws of supply and demand, making the property values shift up and down depending on the interests of the players, but our game of 4 makes that a little hard to do. Plus, we have to questions of elasticity, and, well… nevermind. This is over-extending the metaphor.

But of course I am loading the comparison up in favor of a morality tale in which Ralph and Marcy get screwed by the system. To be fair, they should enjoy a range of public utilities police, fire departments, education (however inadequate). All of these provisions may be skewed to favor Joe and Anne yes, but they do exist, and we may add to them a certain range of welfare provisions designed explicitly for the purpose of keeping Marcy and Ralph in the game. But maybe that is the real point of this meditation, because such measures are precisely the features of our real economy most commonly attacked in the name of the game rule vision of fairness. Why should Joe have to pay for Ralph’s laziness? And why shouldn’t Anne and Joe get a better education (a more complete set of rules) if they can pay for it? And so on…

Any attempt to help the unfortunate would seem to run up against a vision of fairness as a procedural matter, as a set of rules which must treat everyone equally, and I can’t help but think an awful lot of people are using games such as monopoly as a source-model for their thinking of such issues. A significant portion of the general public seems to begrudge the provisions for public welfare, the few things that might give Ralph and Anne a chance. Let’s be honest I do not mean a chance to become wealthy, to win at the game so to speak. If there ever was a time when the free market afforded the poor (or even the middle class) a meaningful chance to move up in status, that time is well past. Barring the lotteries of celebrity fame what we are talking about is a chance to live one’s own lives with a measure of dignity, perhaps to own one’s own home and to control one’s own life.

…or simply to receive adequate healthcare.

We can talk about the pros and cons of any number of policies, but those debates are always skewed by the voice of those who would have us believe in the essential fairness of the game, so to speak. Such voices are quick to point out the unfair edge that any attempt to help Marcy and Ralph will give them, but they are damned slow to acknowledge the unfair edge that the game itself gives to Joe and Anne.

And of course the worst thing about all of this is the notion that it is all just a game, that our economy is here to help us sort the winners from the losers.

…as if the sorting were not itself an act of violence.