On a Tax Lesson

Teachers know that one of the best ways to impart an important lesson to a student is to play a game. In 1903, Elizabeth Magie, a feminist, inventor, and newspaper writer, designed a game for kids that would teach them the basic tenets of the single-tax theory. That idea, expounded by economist Henry George, proposed that taxes on property—not on the value of the improvements on it—should create a fair tax system that would help lower-class landowners.

This was the time before any state or national income taxes had been enacted, but sales taxes and tariffs were common. Land taxes were much of many governments’ income. George’s ideas prompted many of the reforms of the Progressive Era in the United States in the early years of the 20th century. Big businesses—monopolies like Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel—opposed the idea that their considerable land holdings should be taxed, and these Robber Barons exerted their influence on both the state and national levels to ensure that they would pay as little in property taxes as possible.

But Lizzie Magie knew that the way to enact long-lasting change was to teach children from a young age that the land tax idea was the most just, the most equitable. That way, the children would grow up knowing that taxing the wealthy would create a society that was fair and created a level playing field for all.

She was part of that generation that included such Progressives as Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, and even Teddy Roosevelt (to a degree) who saw society’s role as not some social Darwinistic survival of the fittest. Rather, the Progressives sought to fulfill the American Dream by insuring no one small group held all the money or power.

And, so, Lizzie created her game. She tested it on her friends and relatives in her neighborhood of Brentwood, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. They loved it. They helped her tweak the game somewhat, and Lizzie then applied for a patent with the U.S. Patent Office. The patent was granted in 1904. She named it The Landlord Game.

Later on, Lizzie created other games, including Bargain Day, where shoppers competed to get the best deals, and King’s Men, which was a complex strategy game. But we don’t remember those creations. No, today, we remember only The Landlord Game.

No one who plays it today realizes that the game was created to teach us about the dangers of the name by which we know it:

Monopoly.