Musings on Monopoly

From a blogger who recently published a Nature article entitled “Is Our Universe Natural?” and likes examining the molecular properties of coffee, some deep econ thoughts on the Monoploy game on his cell phone:

We think of Monopoly as the quintessential embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism: a competition within the unfettered free market, starting from a level playing field and allowing nature to take its course. Which is all true. But what the game really illustrates are the shortcomings of capitalism, as effectively as one could imagine; if I didn’t know better, I would think that Karl Marx himself had designed the game. Consider:

  • The game perfectly demonstrates the instability of the free market (which it should, if someone is going to “win”). That is, the rich get richer, as they can leverage their wealth to increase their earnings. Makes for a better board game than a society.
  • Talent does not win in the end. Sure, there is some judgment involved in when to make certain trades with other players, but the biggest single factor in winning or losing is a literal roll of the dice! How bleakly fatalistic can you get?
  • The playing field is initially level, but only in a completely artificial way. It’s perfectly clear that, if the game worked like the real world in which some people were born into wealth and others were not, the aforementioned benefits of being rich would absolutely dominate. Not much room for social mobility. A devastatingly effective argument for preserving the estate tax!
  • Most telling of all: your income does not come from working, it comes from collecting rents. Later in the game, when a few players have started to build houses, you quickly discover that you lose money during your own moves, and only make money during the other players’ moves.
  • It follows that, later in the game, the best square to land on is Go To Jail! From the comfort of Jail, you don’t have to worry about paying rents to anyone else, but you are free to accumulate wealth from your own properties. It’s really just a vacation resort for white-collar criminals.
  • The only mildly redistributive action that occurs in the game is the rare-but-devastating “building repairs” card that comes up occasionally in Chance and Community Chest, and which does impact the rich disproportionately. But, significantly, the money doesn’t go to other players, but to the Bank (which is the real source of evil in the whole game).
  • On the other hand, the game does make you hate the Income Tax. So there’s some mixed messages there.

So I’m thinking that there is quite a subtle subversive message in the dynamics of Monopoly, now being spread to a new generation through their handheld gadgets. Of course, one must already be of a suspcious cast of mind to read the above features as cautionary tales; if cutthroat competition is more your style, you might just think they are cool.

Agreed, but I always thought that the unfairness of it all was the point. I remember grown-ups (and their mimicking prodigy) sometimes saying Monopoly was a way to get a taste of the way the real world worked. Perhaps the eyes of a child are clearer than grown-ups in the ratrace. Sometimes the grown-ups meant the strategy was to save, others to buy, and some smarter ones to just play smart. But its mostly in the damn dice. What's even worse, of couse, is that in the real world we do not start out with an equal share of unmarked rainbows bills.

Love it or leave it--it remains the most popular game. But, based on the tantrums it's caused, it's not always fun.