One of the games of childhood in the US, and in many other places around the world, is the board game known as Monopoly. This classic board game pits players in a race to assemble monopolies of real estate so that they can charge higher prices and win the game by bankrupting their opponents. Forming a monopoly is celebrated, along with the deceptions, predation and ruthlessness that any good competitor must show. But hey, it's just a game!
What is less well-known is the very different board game that preceded Monopoly and formed the basis for it. The Landlord’s Game, as it was called, was originally conceived by actress Lizzie Magie in 1906. She set forth a game in which people fought monopolies and cooperated to share the wealth. The story of the true origins of Monopoly is masterfully told in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine by Christopher Ketcham. “Monopoly is Theft” is the title of his article, which describes “the antimonopolist history of the world’s most popular game.”
Lizzie Magie was greatly influenced by Henry George, the author of the 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, who famously proposed a single tax on land as a way to fight unjustified monopolies of land. She saw The Landlord’s Game as a way to popularize George’s teachings, especially the idea that no one could claim to own land. As Ketcham writes, Henry George believed that private land ownership was an “erroneous and destructive principle” and that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.”
The way that monopolies in land could be prevented – and the social value of land socialized for the benefit of all – was via a tax on land value. There was no need to overthrow capitalism; one need merely impose a single tax on land that would prevent monopolists from enjoying unearned, unfair "rents." Ketcham provides a wonderful short history of Georgist thought and the great influence that it had in the late nineteenth century. Henry George was celebrated by Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain and John Dewey as one of the great reformers of his time. He was also reviled by the Catholic Church, landlords and businessmen as more dangerous than Karl Marx.