The Monopoly of Life
Easter – April 1, 2018
ON this day when many celebrate the victory of one over death, I want to speak to those who see life as a game. Certainly there are many video games based upon this concept. We should never mistake our breathing as being the same as an inanimate character on a video screen, however. Life is far too precious to reduce to a competitive activity played for entertainment. We need to own our living and make it count.
Ownership is usually considered when discussing material things like house, cars, business, or property. The concept of land ownership is both new and old and is the reason behind many lawsuits, disagreements, and wars. Throughout time cultures have advocated the communal use of the land while at the same time wanting to control such lands. It may sound complicated but think of the game Monopoly. Elizabeth Magie used this game she invented to protest unfair economic policy.
The point of Monopoly is to obtain properties (or at least cards with titles to spaces on the game board that signify properties0 and then allow others to use your land in the form of rent paid to the property or card owner. The game player becomes the landlord and every time someone lands on a space for which he/she “owns” the card, rent must be paid. Sound a bit unfair? Elizabeth Magie thought so, too.
A monopoly is when a person or company is the only one offering a certain product, usually a necessary commodity. A monopsony is a single entity’s control of a particular market to obtain an item and oligopoly is a few businesses dominating a particular field or industry. Who would have thought all of these could be expressed in a game? Elizabeth Magie did.
The examples I will use are found in the United States of America but none of these terms or economic policies are the sole characteristic of the U.S.A. Every country on earth has them – regardless of their political structure. In fact, the more restrictive a government, the more these terms are present and carried out in life.
If I want to see a professional baseball game in the U.S.A., I have to go see a team that is part of Major League Baseball. There simply are no other professional baseball teams in the United States. That was not always the case, however. In the early 1900’s there were a number of professional leagues that were trying to make money by playing before paying crowds. Baseball was a most popular sport, often called “America’s Game” although variations are found in many cultures worldwide.
These different leagues were not always playing fair or as gentlemen and in 1915, the Federal Baseball Club in Baltimore sued the National and American Leagues under the Clayton Antitrust Act, a law designed to help protect consumers. If only one business offered a necessary product, that business could charge whatever it desired and consumers would be at the mercy of said business’s possible price-gouging. The Federal baseball Club wanted to have a fair share of the public’s affinity for baseball but could not compete with the larger National and American Leagues. Pardon my pun but they wanted to level the playing field, so to speak.
The court case made its way through the court system and eventually ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1922 decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes has resulted in professional baseball being the only sport in America exempt from antitrust laws, a sport often called “America’s favorite monopoly.” FYI – Major League baseball will begin its 140th season on April 3, 2016.
In writing the decision of the court, Justice Holmes penned: “The fact that, in order to give the exhibitions, the Leagues must induce free persons to cross state lines and must arrange and pay for their doing so is not enough to change the character of the business. … The transport is a mere incident, not the essential thing. That to which it is incident, the exhibition, although made for money, would not be called trade of commerce in the commonly accepted use of those words. … Personal effort not related to production is not a subject of commerce. That which in its consummation is not commerce does not become commerce among the states because the transportation that we have mentioned takes place.”
Let me make his eloquent words more easily understood. Baseball is not commerce because it does not “produce” anything. Antitrust or monopoly laws refer to things that are produced and because baseball does not produce anything, it is not commerce and therefore not subject to laws of commerce.
Land ownership and land value might seem to fall under the same sort of issue. Early American patriots advocated that the land was for all and all should benefit equally from its usage. Certain economics philosophies such as Georgism gained popularity with many followers. Georgism was so named after Henry George, the author of “Progress and Poverty”, a book in which George upheld that while people may individually own what they create, natural opportunities such as land belong equally to all.
Elizabeth Magie was a follower of Henry George and led an active life with varied careers. In the early 1880’s she worked as a stenographer and was a writer. She also worked as a comedian, actress on stage, an engineer, and not surprisingly, a feminist. By the dawn of the 1900’s she had a job as a newspaper reporter and at the age of 44, married.
Magie invented a board game which was designed to demonstrate the ill effects economically of land monopolies and how land taxes could alleviate such problems. She called her game “The Landlord’s Game” and obtained a patent on January 5, 1904. In 1932 she revised the game and obtained a new patent for the newly named “The Landlord’s Game and Prosperity”.
Elizabeth Magie followed her own economic philosophies of Georgism with her game. She did not have it sold to a commercial manufacturer. Burton Wolfe explains: “Players… made their own game boards so that they could replace the properties designated by Lizzie Maggie with properties in their own cities and states; this made playing more realistic. As they drew or painted their own boards, usually on linen or oil cloth, they change the title “Landlord’s Game” to “Auction Monopoly” and then just “Monopoly”. One enthusiastic player of the game was student Priscilla Robertson who would later become the editor of “The Humanist”. “In those days those who wanted copies of the board for Monopoly took a piece of linen cloth and copied it in crayon.”
The game grew a following and in 1932 Charles Darrow obtained a copyright for his version of the game. It included the familiar white box of classic Monopoly games. Also in 1932 Parker Brothers company bought Elizabeth Magie’s original patent for the sum of five hundred dollars. In keeping with her original purpose of the game which was to popularize and spread the Georgism economic philosophy, by now whose followers were misnamed as “Single Taxers”, she was not interested in making money from her game but in illuminating the public. She also insisted that Parker Brothers not make any changes to her game. They reissued the game to the public but then immediately recalled it with very few being sold.
In 1940 just four years before her death, Elizabeth Magie, the original inventor of the game Monopoly, was still a strong voice for supporting what one believed. “What is the value of our philosophy if we do not do our utmost to apply it? To simply know a thing is not enough. To merely speak or write of it occasionally among ourselves is not enough. We must do something about it on a large scale if we are to make headway. We must not only tell them, but show them just how and why and where our claims can be proven in some actual situation…” Living one’s beliefs was not a game to Elizabeth Magie; it was life itself.