We dusted off our seldom-used Monopoly game recently for some visiting friends, and it struck me that its basic values are actually offensive (at least to me). It’s a model for winner-take-all capitalism at its worst – rewarding people just for having good luck (no need to thank God) and for being ruthless competitors.
What lessons does this game teach us? And what does it say about human nature and our culture that we actually enjoy playing the game (it’s one of the all-time favorites)? It says you should be greedy and do all you can to create monopolies, so that you can charge exorbitant rents to people who have the bad luck to land on your properties, and that you should drive them into bankruptcy without any qualms.
Yes, I know, it’s only a game, but, unfortunately, some of us play at life like they’re playing Monopoly. What matters in the end is what social behaviors we approve of, or at least tolerate, and how we reward them. So the Monopoly game is only a symptom, not a cause of the capitalist disease.
Maybe it’s time for someone to develop a Fair Society game, modeled on the precepts in my forthcoming book The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice (University of Chicago Press, February 2011). Or maybe the game should model unfairness -- what actually goes on in our society. It would have such features as: “Go to jail” for 20 years for a crime you did not commit; whenever you pass “Go”, pay $200 in interest charges on the bank loan for your token; pay whatever rent suits the monopolist (forget what’s written on the card); “take a chance” on a college education and find yourself so burdened with debt that you can’t afford to buy any properties; and so on. In fact, very few of us would want to play this game – if we had any choice!