go to jail and do not collect £200
Mark Twain famously quipped ‘Buy land – they aren’t making it any more’ but it wasn’t this maxim that taught us the value of property and the rules therein, it was Elizabeth Magie’s bestselling invention, The Landlord’s Game. Launched in 1904, she intended to illustrate the dire economic consequences of financial privilege and land taxation but by the 1930s it had morphed into a board game that unintentionally taught subsequent generations to buy property, cram it with houses and hotels, and charge fellow players exorbitant rents when they accidentally visited. And yes, it had changed its name to Monopoly.
Magie, an outspoken rebel against the norms and politics of her times, decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership through the light-hearted novelty manner of a parlour game. Her inspiration, the anti-monopolist politician, Henry George, had declared that ‘the equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air’ and, instead of following Twain’s guiding principle, he called on the state to tax it and invest the receipts on behalf of everyone.
Within the game as we now all know it players get ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who are unfortunate enough to land there, eventually bankrupting everyone else. Survival of the financially fittest. However, originally, under the ‘Prosperity’ rule, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property and the game was completed when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Importantly, everyone was considered a winner. ‘It might well have been called “The Game of Life”,’ remarked Magie, ‘as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world.’
Considering our very own nationwide chronic shortage of affordable homes brings to mind the flagship Thatcher policy that holds us to this day in its thrall: the virtue of private ownership. The only way to alleviate this pressure is to build more council houses but, unlike our north of the border neighbours, English local authorities continue to encourage council tenants to buy their own homes, without rebuilding and replenishing their own stock. In London alone, 42% of ex-council homes (54,000) are now rented out by private landlords and the report calculates that in excess of £900m would be saved each year if every benefit claimant in privately rented accommodation were council tenants instead. It’s surely better that local authorities subsidise via their own income generating assets.
So, the next time you’re deciding whether to be the top hat, racing car or iron, here’s a thought. As you set out the Community Chest and Chance cards, establish a third pile for Land Tax, to which every property owner must contribute each time they charge a rent. And then decide on the level of taxation and what to do with it, as it’s exactly what Magie always hoped for. And it’ll have our Maggie spinning in her grave!