The Monopoly Nobody Doesn’t Like

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No country is so obsessed with the idea that monopoly is evil as the United States. The response of other industrializing societies to the development of economic hegemonies has been to regulate them, not to break them up. And no other major country has anything resembling the corpus of antitrust law that has built up here since the first statute, the Sherman Antitrust Act, was passed by Congress in 1890. The American economy has changed almost beyond recognition over the course of the twentieth century as the industrial empires of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller turned into the electronic empires of Andrew Grove and Larry Ellison. But antitrust law has hardly changed at all.

The word monopoly has been much in the news lately, as a judge has ruled that the legendarily profitable Microsoft Corporation has an illegal monopoly with its computer operating system. Just how much of a threat to competition this “monopoly” is in the rapidly evolving digital world is an open question, to put it mildly. Regardless, the judge ordered the company to be split in two in order to restore a competitive marketplace. The case, of course, is far from over, and how it will finally play out is anyone’s guess right now, as the company appeals the ruling.

Another kind of monopoly, however, has also been a little bit in the news lately. It’s the board game that has been played by millions for the last 60-odd years. The earliest known Monopoly set, handmade by Charles Darrow, is now on display at the Forbes Galleries in New York City, on the ground floor of the building where many Forbes publications are edited, including American Heritage .

Monopoly the game is a genuine American original. The traditional story has it that an out-of-work engineer named Charles Darrow invented the pastime in the depths of the Great Depression. He approached Parker Brothers to market Monopoly for him; they turned him down, explaining that his game suffered from no fewer than 52 fundamental flaws. But when Monopoly started selling like hotcakes in the New York toy store F. A. O. Schwarz, Parker Brothers reconsidered and licensed the game from Darrow for a royalty. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since 1935, Parker Brothers, now part of Hasbro Incorporated, has sold about 200 million sets of Monopoly, and so many still sell every year that Parker Brothers prints about $50 billion annually in Monopoly money.

If that story sounds a little too good to be true, it’s because it is mostly a public relations legend. In fact, the ultimate origins of the game Monopoly lie more than half a century before the onset of the Great Depression, in a time when the crusade against real monopolies was gathering steam. One of the leaders of that crusade was a man named Henry George.

Henry George (1839–97) had a varied career before writing a book that made him famous. Born in Philadelphia, he quit school at thirteen and a couple of years later shipped out on a vessel bound for India and Australia. On his return, he learned typesetting, tried his luck in the gold rush on the Fraser River in British Columbia, and worked for several years as a newspaperman, in 1871 trying to establish his own paper, the San Francisco Daily Evening Post . The enterprise failed after four years.

Always interested in politics, George tried unsuccessfully to win elective office several times, and finally landed a patronage job as state inspector of gas meters. During this somewhat checkered career, George had been thinking about the economic problems of his day, especially the persistence and apparent increase of deep poverty amid the creation of so much new wealth as America industrialized at a furious pace in the post-Civil War years. In 1879 he published Progress and Poverty .

While an admirer of the creative nature of capitalism, George ascribed much of the evils he saw around him to monopoly ownership and advocated government ownership of so-called “natural monopolies,” such as public utilities. But he felt the worst monopoly of all was in land. Land is the one natural resource that is absolutely fixed in its quantity. As an economy develops, rents inevitably go up and landlords reap a harvest they did not sow. George’s solution to this inequity was to tax away these profits on land (but not on improvements on the land, such as buildings) at 100 percent.

The new game was like the real world. It was competitive, you could get rich, you could ruin your friends!

George calculated that the revenue from this land tax would be sufficient to allow government to repeal all other forms of taxation, including tarrifs (he was an ardent free trader). Written in vigorous prose with everyday examples that the layman could easily grasp, Progress and Poverty was one of the most astonishing successes in the history of publishing, selling more than two million copies in the United States. It made its author both famous and rich.

He moved to New York City, the nation’s media capital, and began to lecture widely. Still hankering for political office, he ran for mayor of New York in 1886.

George’s idea of a single tax on land was never taken seriously by mainstream economists, but it had a great appeal to many ordinary people, who saw it as a cure-all, a one-stroke solution for the economic ills of their time. They formed clubs and ran for office on platforms based on his ideas.

Like most one-issue campaigns, the single-tax crusade faded in time, but Henry George’s philosophy left behind one enduring legacy. For George, who would have been astonished to say the least, is the direct philosophical forefather of the game Monopoly. In 1904 one of his more ardent disciples, Elizabeth Magie, known as Lizzie, of Maryland, patented a board game she called the Landlord’s Game. Its resemblance to Monopoly is startling: It has 40 spaces around a square board; 4 of them are railroads, each placed in the middle of a side; 2 are utilities—a water company and an electric company; and 22 are rental properties whose value increases clockwise around the board. There’s a jail, a go-to-jail space, and a park. The luxury tax is present, but there is no Community Chest or Chance.

Board games in the nineteenth century were often used as teaching tools, and they almost always had a didactic nature. The Landlord’s Game was no exception. As Magie explained in the introduction to the rules, “The object of the game is not only to afford amusement to players, but to illustrate to them how, under the present or prevailing system to land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprisers, and also how the single tax would discourage speculation.”

Magie made up sets for friends in Maryland and later in Chicago, when she moved there, but didn’t try to commercialize her idea until 1924, when she took a revised version to Parker Brothers. The Parker company had been founded on the idea that there was profit to be had in board games that were not didactic but just fun, as chess, backgammon, and bridge are fun. George Parker, one of the owners, could see that the Landlord’s Game was about as much fun as a too-long sermon and turned it down.

But The Landlord’s Game had found its way into the economics departments of universities near where Lizzie Magie had lived—the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania among them—and it was there that the ideas of grouping properties, allowing increased rents when someone had a monopoly of properties in one group, and developing the properties to raise their value still further were introduced to the game. This new version, informally called Monopoly, was suddenly fun because it was a bit like the real economic world. It was competitive, you could become rich, you could ruin your friends!

A company named Knapp Electric put out a version of this new improved game and called it Finance. Sold only in the Midwest, it was the first commercial version to have the Chance and Community Chest features. In 1933, Charles Darrow was introduced to Finance on a homemade set that used place-names from Atlantic City, New Jersey. Darrow began making sets by hand to sell to friends that look much as the game looks today (although “Mr. Monopoly,” modeled on the Wall Street financier Otto Kahn, did not appear until 1936).

Although Darrow would die a millionaire thanks to Monopoly, he really had little to do with its development. When the game turned into a phenomenal success, the earlier versions quickly came to light, and Parker Brothers, with equal quickness, bought the rights to them. It paid Lizzie Magie $500.

A couple of years later a reporter tracked down the now-elderly woman and asked if she had any regrets about selling her game so cheaply. But she said no, that as long as the principles of Henry George were spread by the game, it was fine with her. They weren’t, of course. Instead, in the depths of the Great Depression, Monopoly taught the joys of being rich.

Capitalism works in mysterious ways.