By Nick Cassella
The year was 1904, and Lizzie Maggie wanted to create a board game that acted as “a harsh criticism of wealth disparity.” Upset by the the inequality around her, Maggie aspired to ridicule and condemn the dire outcomes of unbridled capitalism. So she constructed the Landlord’s Game, which intended to educate players on the rules and regulations of realty and taxation. Eventually, it ended up being the precursor to the game-which-nobody-ever-finishes, Monopoly.
Shortly after producing the game, Maggie told a reporter, “In a short time, I hope a very short time, men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what do to with.”
A long time has passed since then and it’s safe to say that Maggie’s hope has not been realized. Monopoly’s creator would look at today’s economic landscape and be disheartened. Inequality remains breathtakingly high, poverty still exists at a startling rate in the wealthiest nation on earth, and her board game has become a celebration of the very economic practices it was designed to denounce.
That’s some tragic irony — though it appears as if Hasbro is trying to draw attention to Monopoly’s original purpose by releasing a new “cheaters edition” this autumn (as seen above).
The cheaters edition follows the rules of classic Monopoly, except this version encourages players to break them…They encourage players to cheat in various ways, from collecting rent on another player’s property or stealing money from the bank.
This is the sort of economic commentary we need right now. For far too long, Americans have acquiesced to an economy ordered by and for monopolies. More than that, control of market share has become the desired outcome in every aspect of economic life — it is the logical conclusion of shareholder-driven capitalism. Peter Thiel captured the sentiment of modern times perfectly when he approvingly wrote, “monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”
Naturally, that mindset leads to an economy which lacks robust levels of competition as capital becomes more and more concentrated. Matt Stoller lists the gross outcomes of that worldview:
Eighty percent of seats on airplanes are sold by just four airlines. CVS and Walgreens have a virtual lock on the drugstore and pharmacy business. A private equity firm in Brazil controls roughly half of the U.S. beer market. The chemical giant Monsanto is able to dictate when and how farmers plant its seeds. Google and Facebook control nearly 75 percent of the $73 billion market in digital advertising.
How did we get here though? How did we move from the New Deal economy, which aimed to protect small businesses and empower workers, to a low-wage economy motivated by monopoly capitalism?
During the fight against big businesses, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made clear that cutthroat competition needed to be curtailed by strong antitrust laws. He labelled business and financial monopolies as “the old enemies of peace”—and built up countervailing powers like labor unions and regulations to stop the concentration of power into the few’s hands. FDR was considered a traitor to his class and a champion of the forgotten men and women of America.
That’s some favorable messaging territory, and conservatives knew it. It would have been politically ruinous for them to come out in favor of rabid monopolization and abuse of the common worker. So conservative business leaders, politicians, and academics coalesced around the promotion of freedom—namely, the safeguarding of one’s liberty from government intervention.
They focused their efforts on making the public fear government monopoly more than a business monopoly. The pro-business political agenda became nothing less than “a noble bid for human freedom.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, they were able to depict the government as the robber baron and big business as the hapless victim of socialist interventionism. In this light, a government that intervened to curb monopolies became worse than the monopolies it aimed to restrain.
That logic may sound ridiculous, but this economic narrative worked. In the minds of Americans, Republicans slowly became the lone “guardian of the Ark of the Covenant with its charter of freedom,” as Herbert Hoover declared.
By the 1970s, anti-monopoly movements went from being “a bipartisan goal” to an economic framework which “retreated from the public consciousness.” As the worry about corporate consolidation became a partisan issue, “the enforcement of anti-monopoly policy grew increasingly toothless.”
Barry Lynn, the author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism & The Economics of Destruction, argues that the overturning of anti-monopoly laws came down to the “radical neofeudal wing” of economic thinkers taking over the Republican Party’s economic messaging.
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It was Reagan who was able to really codify this economic worldview into laws, but in order to do so he needed Democratic help in the House—and he unfortunately got a lot of it. Driven by fears of high inflation, Democrats became fixated on lowering prices for the American consumer. Subsequently, Lynn notes “the party leaders became increasingly open to the idea that concentration, efficiency, and privatization (under the guise of deregulation) were the best way to serve the nation’s populace.”
Unfortunately, all presidents after Reagan continued this line of thinking, which allowed for further corporate consolidation. It is important to recognize that this economic outcome was considered a worst-case scenario just a century ago. Woodrow Wilson, a Democratic centrist who ran to the right of Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, admitted as much, predicting the United States was “never going to submit to monopoly. America is never going to choose thralldom instead of freedom.”
How quaint. The lesson of history is clear: the pull towards monopolization is extremely strong in a capitalist economy. No matter how defiant the people, eventually powerful economic interests prevail. If a government does not make attempts to curb wealth hoarding at both the individual and business level, inequality will rise and competition will be restricted.
As we look to reverse the trends of radical inequality, we must analyze the success of the conservative’s messaging. They were annoyingly effective at undoing the New Deal’s policies by changing how Americans thought of the relationship between the government and business.
While Lizzie Maggie’s ultimate goal of unveiling the wickedness of monopoly capitalism has yet to be achieved, her instincts were right. She understood how important it is to alter people’s perceptions of the accepted realities around them. Although she’s not here today, she would be quite pleased with Monopoly’s dramatic rule change. What better way to highlight our rigged economy than by making blatant cheating permissible—and advantageous—in a game all about wealth accumulation?
Progressives have to finally demonstrate to Americans that monopoly capitalism is not only, as Barry Lynn claims, “an ideology of darkness that erects institutions to promote more darkness.” It is a perverse way of ordering an economy.
The house rules must change.
Originally published at Civic Skunk Works here.