When Charles Darrow first offered Monopoly to the Parker Brothers in the early 1930s (see Blog for 30 March) it was turned down because of its 56 "design faults". However, the game was never intended as a teaching aid for the development of global corporatism. On the contrary, it was one of a large number of games created by local communities exploring the problems that arose from private monopoly control of land. The games were handmade, circulating among members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Atlanta City and elsewhere. They were devised to stimulate discussion of the evils of private monopoly landholding. The idea was to move beyond protest towards practical alternatives based upon social responsibility. The Single Land Tax was based upon the teachings of the popular American economist, Henry George (1839-1897).
A powerful speaker, Henry George was moved by the evidence of dire poverty amidst affluence in the New York of the 1860s and 1870s. His observations caused him to turn his journalistic talents to the relationship between private property in land and the necessity for labourers to subsist on wages offering no more than a basic living. Poverty and Progress (1879), his major publication, was translated into many languages and was debated far and wide. His proposals to replace taxation of labour with taxation of privately held land still attract the attention of reforming legislators in the US, Denmark, and elsewhere.
The Georgist system of land taxation was designed to be introduced gradually, in stages, following informed public debate. The idea was that local economies run by the people and for the people would be placed on a firm footing politically, economically and culturally. In an address delivered in 1889 at Toombridge, County Derry, Ireland, George drew a distinction between production and creation. People may hew coal from the rocks, catch fish in the seas, bring together timber, stone and iron to shape a house, produce cloth from the wool of sheep or the fibre of plants, and produce crops by tilling the soil. Labour on the land brings forth the necessities of life. It does not, however, create. For George, God as Creator of all, gives equal use of the land to all. No individual or powerful organisation can justly commandeer the reservoirs of nature, or the property of others created by their own labours.
Incomes derived from the ownership of property in land were, according to George, unearned incomes derive from social change such as occurs when a city expands. Economic growth causes a many-fold rise in the value of city-centre sites and nearby land. In these circumstances speculation for private gain prevents the land from being used for the benefit of the community as a whole. Yet it is from the community as a whole that the rising value of land occurs. A tax on land at or near its full rental value would, George argued, reduce the price of land. The tax would rise as the value of land rose, and fall as it fell, eliminating the motivation to speculate in land. Land would be held for its use value, not for speculation in its scarcity value.
Under the Georgist system, owners of homes and properties who make improvements would not have to pay higher taxes on rents based on improvements because they are presumed to be benefiting the community as a whole. Hence farmers who improve their land would benefit, while commercial speculation in land would be discouraged, opening up the possibility for creating agricultural zones near cities. Under the present system it pays farmers to sell their lands to developers for huge profits.
The Landlord's Games remain an intriguing starting point for discussion of practical economic alternatives to corporate capitalism. Their creators had a profound faith in the human capacity for action based upon reasoned argument. Designed to be played cooperatively, the games provided a focus for discussion. The three phases of the games suggested the potential for communities to regain access to the land. Monopoly was developed from the first two phases of the original games. By eliminating the 'design faults', the original 'win-win' game was turned into a 'zero-sum' game where there are winners and losers. The games still offer much food for thought. Nevertheless, in the 21st century players must let go of the desire to win, in order to settle to thoughtful discussion.
In the next Blog we look at Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, an intriguing Guild Socialist variation on the original Georgist theme.