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Cancel Rent and Stop Playing the Landlord’s Game

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Years ago, I took an interest in the origins of the boardgame Monopoly, which was originally known as the Landlord’s Game.  Its history is germane, I think – and perhaps even might be a source of inspiration – for those heroic renters now contemplating a nationwide rent strike.

The game of Monopoly was reportedly invented around 1931 by an unemployed steam duct repairman and part-time dog-walker named Charles Darrow, of Philadelphia.  Darrow, bored and with “nothing better to do,” had dreamt up “out of thin air” what he described as a “real estate trading game” whose property names were inspired by the “fond memories” he had of Atlantic City, the resort town where he summered as a child. Patented in 1935 by Darrow and the corporate game-maker Parker Brothers, Monopoly sold over 1.4 million copies in the first year of production, adding millions of dollars to Darrow’s “personal Community Chest,” and saving Parker Brothers from bankruptcy. It would go on to become the world’s best-selling proprietary board game.

At least 750 million people, in 81 countries, and in 27 languages, have played it, with an estimated five billion little green houses constructed to date. In that time, Monopoly players have established world records for playing the game upside down (36 hours); in a treehouse (286 hours); in a moving elevator (384 hours); in a bathtub (99 hours); on a balance beam and on the back of a fire truck (200 hours and 101 hours); and underwater, when 350 members of the Buffalo Dive Club switched off for 1,080 hours in a swimming pool.   Monopoly boards were themed to reflect the streets of almost every major American city; there were boards branded for banks and financiers (Bank of America Monopoly, Berkshire Hathaway Monopoly); sports teams (Chicago Bears Monopoly); television shows (The Simpsons Monopoly); farm equipment (John Deere Monopoly); automobiles (Corvette Monopoly); and musical royalty (Elvis Monopoly).  The game was suppressed, however, where capitalism was the enemy.  In Cuba, where it was apparently quite popular, Fidel Castro ordered all sets destroyed when he came to power.  It was played vigorously underground in the Eastern Bloc, but the Soviets tried to stomp it out the same year Castro did, following the 1959 Moscow Trade Fair, when every copy of Monopoly displayed at the fair was stolen by curious Moscovites.  The purloined copies included the one laid out in the parlor of the model American home where Nixon and Krushchev squared off for their Kitchen Debate.

The official history of the game’s invention, as told by Hasbro, Inc., the current owner of the brand, is a lie, as official histories usually are.   The real genesis narrative suggests a decidedly less capitalistic bent. Turns out that a Washington D.C. actress named Lizzie Magie, known for cross-dressing on stage, is the one who conceived of the game, nearly three decades before Darrow’s patent, around 1903.  (Darrow and Parker Brothers stole the invention from Magie).

Her purpose was to create a teaching tool for the philosophy of Henry George, the wildly popular nineteenth century economist and journalist who proselytized the notion that no single person could claim to “own” land. In his 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, George offered a solution to what he called the “erroneous and destructive principle” of “exclusive property in land”: If land ownership was corrosive to social justice, then land, he counseled, “must be made common property,” with “the whole people” acting as “the general landlord.” Unlike Karl Marx, to whom he was compared, George did not propose revolution to achieve his aims.

What puzzled him as a newsman was that wherever he saw progress unfold in the United States there were more poor people springing up, and in more desperate condition, than in places where the machinery of production was in comparative infancy.  It was for George a stunning paradox, “the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization and which not to answer is to be destroyed.  So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes,” he wrote, “progress is not real and cannot be permanent.” Hence the title of the book that made him famous, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Causes of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, which provided a sweeping answer to the riddle: Land monopoly, the control of land and natural resources in the hands of the few, was the reason progress brought greater poverty. As American civilization advanced, as populations grew and aggregated in and around cities, land became scarce – it was the ultimate finite commodity – prices soared, and the majority who had to live on it and work on it paid the price to a minority who owned it and demanded rent.  For the laboring classes, rent-slavery and degradation was the result. “To see human beings in their most hopeless condition, do not go to the unfenced prairies or the log cabins of the backwoods where land is worth nothing,” said George. “Go, instead, to the great cities, where owning a little patch is worth a fortune.”

From those little patches, needless to say, had arisen the dynasties of the American nouveau riche: the Astors, the Beekmans, the Phippses, the Stuyvesants, the Roosevelts. Shrewd investment during the land boom of the 1920s, particularly in Florida, enriched the Tishmans, the Rudins, the Roses, the Minskoffs, the Dursts, the Urises, and, after World War II, in New York, it was land value that built the fortunes of the Fisher and Tisch brothers, among others.  “[T]he history of America,” said Daniel Friedenberg, a New York real estate investor, writing in Harper’s in 1968, “can be said to be the history of the rise in land values” – and the history of parasitic rentiers getting rich off that rise.

According to George, however, the sequestering of rising land value in private hands was itself the product of a system of property in land “as artificial and baseless as that of the right divine of kings.” “Historically, as ethically,” said George, “private property in land is robbery….it has everywhere had its birth in war and conquest.” It was, in fact, the original sin of Western civilization:

In California our land titles go back to the Supreme Government of Mexico, who took from the Spanish King, who took from the Pope, when he by a stroke of the pen divided lands yet to be discovered between the Spanish or Portuguese—or if you please they rest upon conquest. In the eastern states they go back to treaties with Indians and grants from English kings; in Louisiana to the government of France; in Florida to the government of Spain; while in England they go back to the Norman conquerors. Everywhere, not to a right which obliges, but to a force which compels.

George noted that many premodern tribes recognized no right of land ownership; the tribesman’s property was the bow and arrow he built with his hands, not the land he hunted on. Nor was such a right recognized under the laws of the Old Testament, in which land was “treated as the gift of the Creator to his common creatures.” Moses had, after all, instituted the jubilee, under which land was redistributed every fifty years, and the debts incurred against land were canceled—a tradition ended by Roman rule. Everywhere George reviewed the annals of the precapitalist world, he saw the “struggle between this idea of equal rights to the soil and the tendency to monopolize it in individual possession.”

By the nineteenth century, however, the “superstition” of “absolute individual property in land,” represented by the complex array of state-sanctioned deeds and titles, had become fundamental to the American legal system. It could not – nor, said George, should it – be crushed from existence. For George, land seizure and nationalization was not the answer.  He thought it would only lead to state tyranny.  “Let the individuals who hold it still retain, if they want to, possession of what they are pleased to call their land.” George would not revoke the right to buy and sell property or convey it to one’s descendants.  Instead he argued that society might leave landowners “the shell” of their holdings, “if we may take the kernel. It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.”

Rent was the key. George defined rent as the unearned income owners derived from the rising value of land, distinct from the labor that went into property in the form of improvements, the construction of homes and offices and factories, and the cultivation of fields. To labor on the earth meant to reap its benefits – “In all labor there is profit,” George said, quoting Proverbs – and in modern capitalist economies, land value existed because of the synergies of labor and the capital created by labor.  Adam Smith had written that capitalism – division of labor, networks of trade, expansion of markets – was grounded on “the interrelationships of men living in communities.”  George extended Smith’s notions to their logical conclusion: the productivity and provisioning of services in a community was the invisible hand that caused site values to skyrocket. The cabin in the backwoods became a prize when a mine opened up across the field, a road linked the cabin and the mine, a country store opened to supply the miners, more homes were built, a railroad came in, a town was born. The land under the cabin derived its worth only as a socially-created value. Therefore its increase in value belonged to society.  A “single tax” on land and natural resources offered the reform of capitalism – which George saw as his task to save from self-destruction – that would “open the way to the realization of the noble dreams of socialism.”

When Lizzie Magie, an ardent Georgist and single tax advocate, first published the “Landlord’s Game”, it looked remarkably similar to what today we know as Monopoly. It featured a continuous track along each side of a square board; the track was divided into blocked spaces, each marked with the name of a property and the price to purchase it, along with the amount of rent to be taken. The game was played with dice, and with scrip cash, and had pawns to represent each player moving about the track. It had railroads and public utilities – the Soakum Lighting System, the Slambang Trolley – and a “luxury tax” of $75.  It also had Chance cards – but they quoted Thomas Jefferson (“The earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” says Jefferson), and John Ruskin (“It begins to be asked,” asks Ruskin, “how the possessors of the land became possessed of it”), and Andrew Carnegie (“The greatest astonishment of my life,” Carnegie confides to the players, “was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich”).  Its most expensive properties to buy, and the most remunerative to own, were in New York City, at Wall Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue. In the space where Monopoly’s “Go!” stands, there was a box marked “Mother Earth,” with the words, “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”

Its chief entertainment, which Magie “based on present prevailing business methods,” was the same as in Monopoly: competitors were to be reduced to debt and finally ruin, and only one person, the super-monopolist, would stand tall in the end, lording over all others.  The players could, however, opt by majority vote to do something you cannot do in Monopoly, which is cooperate.  Under this alternate rule-set, they would pay rent not to backbiting landlords but to a common pot – the rent effectively socialized so that, as Magie wrote, “Prosperity is achieved.”

A utopian vision, perhaps.  Covid-19 has given Americans the opportunity to achieve some version of renter cooperation in the form of the nationwide rent strike.  I would urge renters to consider Henry George and Lizzie Magie and stop playing the wretched the game of Monopoly.   Cancel rent, and smite the lords who feed off your labor.   The land belongs not to them.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of  “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” (Viking-Penguin).  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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