Acton Institute Powerblog

What Monopoly can teach us about the purpose of markets and money

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The game of Monopoly has brought generations of people together, even as it’s somehow managed to tear friends and family apart. Indeed, amid all the fun and frivolity, it’s still a cut-throat game driven by luck, exploitation, and money-lust.

Just like the actual marketplace, right?

Alas, despite being “just a game,” Monopoly has surely done its share of feeding the various pop-culture caricatures of capitalism, complete with a twirly-mustached mascot. But despite those subtle distortions, perhaps it can still teach us something — showing us what the market is by showing us what it is not.

When it comes to the basic mechanics of the game, Monopoly inhabits a peculiar world wherein exchange is only “free” in the most limited sense, and where there is almost always a winner and a loser. Economist Russ Roberts describes it as the “ultimate zero-sum game,” in which “whoever has the most toys wins and winning means taking everything belonging to everyone else.”

Under such rules, Roberts argues, Monopoly’s version of “capitalism” is just as the naysayers proclaim: an “unrelentingly gloomy system of exploitation where the rich eventually wear everyone else down”:

You profit only by taking from others. The assets of its world are fixed in number. Yes, you can build houses or hotels, but somehow, the greater the supply of places to live, the HIGHER the price, an absurd contradiction to real-world economic life. In Monopoly, hotels never get a makeover and railroads, unlike Amtrak, are always profitable.

In Monopoly, getting rich and succeeding in business only comes from exploiting unlucky suckers who randomly enter your life. There’s no role for hard work or creativity — figuring out what customers might want to buy that isn’t being offered by a competitor. There’s no competition.

But while the basic economics of gameplay may indeed stray from reality, what about the behavior of the players therein? What about the constant competing and fighting for more wealth and power, irrespective of cost or consequence to one’s neighbor?

Unfortunately, as unethical, irrational, and unproductive as such behavior may be, the underlying attitudes are far closer to reality than many of us would like to believe. Even still, they presents a false view of the way God intended us to view and approach our work and creative collaborations. On this, we have plenty to learn, as well.

In a Karam Lecture for the Oikonomia Network, Eric Tully of Trinity International University parses out those lessons from a Christian perspective, using Monopoly as an example of how not to think about faithful work and stewardship in the global economy.

In Monopoly, “we just temporarily set aside normal standards of right and wrong,” Tully observes. “We embrace greed and just focus on money and crushing all the other players. It brings out the worst in some of us.”

To demonstrate how this might translate into reality, Tully points to the financial and housing crisis of 2008, the toxic ingredients of which were stirred together with the logic and imagination worthy of a competitive Monopoly master.

“Politicians forced banks to make loans to people who could not repay,” he reminds us. “Predatory banks made irresponsible, risky loans in order to bolster their bottom line. People were greedy, bought much more than they could afford, and took on huge debt. It was the pursuit of goods instead of goodness, and it was a disaster.”

For Tully, such extremes are helpful in reminding us that, as Christians, the purpose of our economic activity isn’t self-provision, self-protection, or the accumulation of personal wealth. Rather, “when we fear the Lord, we value righteousness over wealth,” he says. “Second, we promote justice. And third, we are generous to those in need.”

The economic rules and realities of the day are far different than those in Monopoly and so are our moral and spiritual priorities therein. We not only have the privilege of engaging in free and open exchange in a free and open society, not bound by chance or sneering, money-hungry property owners. We have the privilege of pursuing our freedom with the truth and love of the Gospel.

Image: John Morgan, Monopoly (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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