One Many

Criticizing capitalism is pretty fashionable these days, and one interesting way to do it is by using the board game Monopoly to illustrate some of the problems caused by a free market. But people who do this are overlooking a crucial piece of information: Monopoly has rules.

If we measure the number of rules by the number of individual statements, then there are 103 distinct rules in the game. These rules are described in¬†2,243 words over the course of 8 pages. Before we explore the nature and effects of these rules, we must first acknowledge that players are not free to do whatever they want. In other words, it’s not a free market.

Taking a closer look at the rules, we find some familiar forms of regulation that any free-market advocate would oppose, including:

  • A central bank and currency
  • Fixed prices and income
  • The prohibition of loans between players
  • Supply management

In addition to these rules, there are various restrictions governing how players are permitted to buy, sell, rent, and mortgage properties. But there’s one special rule, right before the end, that stands out from the rest:

A bankrupt player must immediately retire from the game. The last player left in the game wins.

This is not real life. In real life, you don’t just disappear when you go broke, and the economy doesn’t just stop when some someone gets rich. Some argue that poverty does exclude people from participating in the economy, but even the most destitute individual is still free to sell their labor.

Critics may also point out that the economy actually would end if one person obtained all the money, but this is obviously false. If we imagine that all wealth was confiscated and given to a single person, what would really happen? Would everyone just stop working, buying, and selling? Would they sit around all day watching the clouds float by? Of course not! They would simply adopt a new currency.

Getting back to this special rule, what’s really interesting about it is that it doesn’t just restrict how people play the game, it actually forces players to accumulate wealth by dictating their objective.

In reality, we don’t just have one objective, and it isn’t dictated to us by an authority – we choose our objectives. A small number of people spend all their time and energy accumulating as much wealth as possible, but most of us are perfectly happy to take up hobbies, spend time with friends and family, and occasionally watch the clouds float by.

Of course, simply omitting this rule from the game wouldn’t necessarily change much, since there isn’t any option in Monopoly to pick up hobbies or spend time with friends. But one thing it would do is allow players to continue playing the game, which produces interesting results. If no one is every truly out of the game, and if no winner is ever declared, then players who wanted to continue playing after someone declares bankruptcy would find ways to continue the game.

Monopoly isn’t a very good example of how a free market works, but it does teach us an important lesson: how we set up the rules makes all the difference. For example, consider what would happen if we simply added the following rules:

  1. The Banker sets the prices of hotels.
  2. The Banker can take money, properties, and hotels from players.
  3. The Banker can give money, properties, and hotels to players.

At first glance these rules don’t seem that bad. After all, wouldn’t it be great if the Banker gave discounts on properties to poor players or took from wealthier players in order to help poorer ones? That might actually be a neat way to play the game, but what would actually happen if players used these rules?

First of all, we have to remember that the special rule is still in place: when all the other players go bankrupt, the remaining player wins. If that is still the case, then players suddenly have a massive incentive to get the Banker to give to them and take from their opponents.

Since the rules allow gifts, it would be in the best interest of both the players and banker to offer the banker money in exchange for favors. In fact, the wealthier players would actually have an even bigger advantage than they do under the classic rules, since they can offer bigger gifts to the Banker.

Of course, these effects could be mitigated by tinkering with the rules, but if we’re going to criticize the free market for the problems caused by the original 103 rules, then it makes just as much sense to criticize a regulated economy for the problems caused by the set of 106 rules. In fact, the problems attributed to capitalism under the original rules are probably more accurately attributed to a regulated economy, since a set of 0 rules ( a completely free market) is far less similar to the original set of 103 rules than the set of 103 rules is from the set of 106 rules.

Perhaps the real flaw in our thinking here is that we’re trying to glean information about regulations and economics from a children’s board game. But suppose for a moment that we actually wanted to construct a version of Monopoly that represented a free market. What would that look like?

Well, it’s hard to say. Many of the rules of monopoly are built in to the board itself, as well as the cards and pieces. Instead, what if we amended the rules to allow players more freedom? That is a much more answerable question.

Rather than rewrite the entire set of rules, let’s just remove the special rule and replaced it with the following rule, which has priority over the others that contradict it:

Players are free to travel wherever they want on the board and buy, sell, trade, donate, share, and loan money, property, hotels, and debt under any conditions they agree upon. Each player chooses their own criteria for victory.

What would happen? What would players do if they were free to compete and cooperate and weren’t obligated to eliminate each other from the game? It’s hard to say, since most people probably aren’t interested in playing a game that doesn’t have an explicit win condition.

Some players might try to get as much money as possible, but maybe no one would go to that person’s property because he’s a jerk. Some players might try get everyone to work together toward a common goal, but maybe no one will agree to join them because it’s a stupid goal. Players would probably make all sorts of unique and unusual choices, producing diverse, interesting, and unpredictable results. And in this way, the game would more closely resemble a free market.