Monopoly’s Forgotten Left-Wing Origins

6 minute read
Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. He is author of Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World

The thrill of bankrupting one’s friends and family over a cut-throat game of Monopoly has long been a hallmark of the holiday season. Gobbling up all the property on the board for yourself while gleefully leaving everyone else penniless never gets old. With its iconic monocled and top-hatted mascot, the world’s third-most popular boardgame of all time holds a special place in our hearts.

But despite the boardgame’s popularity, many might be surprised to learn of Monopoly’s left-wing origin story, which stretches back to the U.S. anti-imperialist movement of the early 20th century.

A feminist radical and game designer, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie, was Monopoly’s creator, when, in 1904, she received a patent for a boardgame she called The Landlord’s Game. Only decades later, amid the Great Depression, would Parker Brothers rebrand it as we now know it today.

Magie came up with the idea for the boardgame while in her late 30s, soon after she had moved into her new digs in a small Delaware town named Arden, which was a hotbed of left-wing grassroots radicalism. Consequently, the revolutionary time and place of Magie’s boardgame creation were more than coincidental. She and her fellow Arden residents were disciples of the then-famous U.S. left-wing economic theorist Henry George, and she designed The Landlord’s Game to teach others about George’s economic philosophy.

Lizzie’s father, an Illinois newspaper editor named James Magie, had instilled his daughter with his radical politics, which included abolitionism, feminism, and, of course, anti-monopolism. To support the latter, James had also lent Lizzie his dog-eared copy of a wildly popular book among U.S. left-wingers at the time, George’s Progress and Poverty.

In Progress and Poverty, George first laid out his radical capitalist proposal for a tax to replace all other taxes. He made the provocative case that a single tax on the estimated potential value of land would make all other forms of taxation unnecessary—and break up land monopolies along the way.

So what exactly was Henry George’s single tax proposal?

According to George and his followers, the nation’s land was God’s creation, the fruits of which rightfully belonged to all Americans. Yet, perversely, a small avaricious group of monopolists instead laid claim to the country’s vast land wealth.

Land monopoly invariably led to inefficiency and exploitation; the ill-gained profits of land speculators and railroad tycoons came at the nation’s expense.

Placing a single tax on land based upon its potential value would therefore either incentivize monopolists to develop their land to maximize its productive wealth—e.g. to build more factories or farms—or else force them to let someone else rent the land who would.

But for Monopoly’s progenitor, Magie, and her fellow Georgists, the single tax transcended domestic politics—it also had radical left-wing implications for U.S. foreign policy.

The single tax promised to provide enough revenue to fund the U.S. government. All other forms of taxation would thus become unnecessary, including tariffs, at the time the country’s main source of revenue. Absolute free trade was, thus, the natural end game of the single tax on land.

George’s theory was as simple as it was appealing, arriving as it did at the height of the so-called Gilded Age, infamous for its robber barons, extreme disparities of wealth, and economic panics. Subscribers to Henry George’s single tax theory became fittingly known as “Georgists” and their grassroots mobilization grew into the “single tax” movement by the turn of the 20th century. And as the popularity of Monopoly illustrates, the grassroots single tax movement hasn’t disappeared, even if the boardgame’s original message has. Leaving your friends and family penniless was meant to highlight the evils of land monopoly, not the virtues.

Read More: The Most Popular Game in History Almost Didn’t Pass ‘Go’

Monopoly’s muddled messaging today perhaps helps explain why Georgism has devolved into a fringe ideology. But it still lives on. In December 2023, the New York Times reminded us that the Georgists are still “out there,” kept alive by its 21st-century disciples like the Young Georgists of America, New York’s Henry George School of Social Science, and Princeton, New Jersey’s Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. And of course, Arden remains a testament to the movement’s longevity; it was founded in 1900 as one of the nation’s first single tax colonies.

For Georgists in Arden and across the country, the ensuing U.S. embrace of free trade was going to fundamentally transform the U.S. economy, which had remained highly protectionist since the early 1860s. Like land monopoly, protectionism was deemed inefficient and retrograde, yet another unnatural mechanism used to monopolize and exploit the national market at the consumer’s expense.

But as we’ve seen all too recently with former President Donald Trump’s “America First” tariffs and trade wars with its closest allies, protectionism doesn’t just bring higher costs for consumers—it can also adversely affect foreign markets and foreign relations.

That’s why George and his liberal economic disciples like Magie believed that the monopolistic inefficiencies of protectionism compelled the U.S. to become a colonial power to acquire new markets to export surplus U.S. capital. For Georgists, this connection between U.S. economic nationalism and imperialism was illustrated most vividly in 1898, when the protectionist U.S. declared war upon Spain to obtain the Philippines and other colonies, followed by a subsequent bloody conflict with Philippine anti-colonial nationalists between 1899 and 1902.

Unsurprisingly, Georgists became the heads of the turn-of-the-century U.S. anti-imperialist movement. In fact, the country’s main Georgist publication, Chicago’s The Public, was launched in 1898 to oppose the U.S. imperial conflict with Spain.

Joseph Fels, a wealthy retired Philadelphia soap manufacturer and the principal financier of the early 20th-century Georgist movement, elaborated upon this very point to the U.S. steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in 1910. In an open letter titled “Free Trade and the Single Tax vs. Imperialism,” Fels argued that there would have been no need for the U.S. to colonize the Philippines “if conditions of absolute free trade had prevailed” through the adoption of the single tax on land. The protectionist-driven “need of foreign markets,” Fels continued, was “so frequently used as an argument to justify wars of criminal aggression.” But it was “a ‘need’ that would not be felt if the aggressing nation enforced justice at home” through the single tax and free trade.

Georgist radicals in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia—and Magie’s Arden— would keep up their pacifistic fight by taking a lead role within the U.S. peace movement that grew out of the First World War.

So next time your family digs out that worn-out Monopoly box from the attic for an afternoon of fun, remember that you are also dusting off a remarkable artifact from the nation’s left-wing anti-imperial past.

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