In the United States, we laud the notions of fair competition and equality of opportunity. In fact, these notions are constantly used to justify many things about our political and economic systems. But we also have massive tax protection for inheritance. Roughly put, a person could inherit about $11 million without paying taxes. This presents an obvious tension: how do you have fair competition and equal opportunity with an inheritance system that massively favors the wealthy?
It might be claimed that there is no problem here. To show that there is, I will use the game of Monopoly in my appeal to intuition argument. What I am trying to do is to get you to think about whether you would play Monopoly with inheritance rules and how your thoughts on this matter might apply to the real world.
Almost everyone is familiar with Monopoly. If you are not, the rules can be found here. The idea is that you win by driving all other players into bankruptcy using the rules of the game. In normal play, the outcome of one game does not affect the next: the game is equal opportunity and fair competition in that everyone starts with the same resources, in the same place and with a chance to win based on ability and luck. My proposed variation adds in inheritance rules to simulate, in a simple way, the impact of inheritance. This variation requires playing multiple games.
Monopoly Inheritance (zero-sum game)!
Rule 1: The first game in the series is played normally using the standard rules.
Rule 2: Upon the conclusion of a game in the series, the winning player records what they possess at the end—money, property, houses, and hotels.
Rule Three: At the start of the second and later games in the series, one player is randomly selected to receive the game possessions of the winning player from the previous game. The receiving player is the heir and the possessions make up their inheritance. The other players start normally. The game is otherwise played using the normal rules, aside from the exceptions noted in these rules. The series ends when no one wants to play anymore.
Players can experiment with these variations to make the game more “realistic” or “fairer.” The rules need to be set prior to play.
Fractional Inheritance: The heir receives a percentage of the possessions of the previous winner (75%, 50% or 25% are suggested). Property is selected by drawing the property cards randomly. Round up.
Multiple Heirs: Two players are randomly selected to be heirs, dividing the possessions of the winner of the between them. This can be a 50-50 split or a 75-25 split at the discretion of all the players.
While a player who is not the heir could win the game, an heir has an incredible advantage. Anyone playing can easily see how unfair the game is. This should help people intuitively see how inheritance of significant wealth is inconsistent with having a fair and competitive economic system.
From a philosophical standpoint, the first game could be considered a state-of-nature game (of the sort envisioned by Locke) in which everything is initially available to all and property has yet to be divided up.
The players in the second (and subsequent) game are obviously taking on the role of the next generation. Since birth is random and inheritance is not merited by effort, the heir is selected at random rather than being the previous winner.
I admit that this analogy will break down quickly. To illustrate, the real-world features multiple heirs, there is no equal start for everyone else, there is not just one game with one winner and so on. My point is, of course, not that this game variant is a perfect model of inheritance in the United States. Rather, my goal is to get people who are fine with the inheritance system as it stands to play this variant and see if they still feel that this is a fair ruleset for the game. And then to think about whether it is a fair ruleset for the real economy. The question that I want to pose is this: would you play Monopoly by these rules? Why or why not?
One obvious counter to my analogy is to point out that the real economy is (mostly) not zero-sum. I turn to this matter now.
Monopoly Inheritance (non-zero-sum game)!
Monopoly does reflect zero-sum aspects of the real economy because the game is about owning properties and major business (like railroads) and these are zero-sum matters in the actual world. If, for example, I own a vast tract of land, that means less land for other people. While we can make more usable land by draining swamps and building islands, there is finite land on earth. The same generally holds for businesses—there is a finite limit and the success of my business in an area limits the success of others. So, for the zero-sum parts of the economy, Monopoly is not a bad model. But about the non-zero-sum aspects of the economy. what if Monopoly could be made into a non-zero-sum game?
In the real economy, the idea is that the sum grows over time. The same can be applied to the game. A crude way to simulate this is to add in the Board Expansion rule variant to the inheritance rules (unlimited money, houses, and hotels can also be added by creating them as needed). To play this variant, you will need several Monopoly boards.
Rule 1: Prior to the start of the next game, place another Monopoly board with its Go square adjacent to the Just Visiting square of the prior board. Repeat until the players decide to stop playing. Play begins in the Go square on the board from the first game.
Rule 2: Once a player’s piece has completed moving completely around a board (from Go to back to Go), they must exit the board and move to the next board. A board is exited via the Just Visiting square and entered via the Go square. Once a piece has completely moved around the final board, the piece must be moved back to the prior board and so on until the original board is reached. The process then begins anew and continues until the game ends. The board a piece is on is treated as the game board for that piece.
Alternative Rule: Instead of being forced to leave a board after moving completely around it (from Go to go), a player can elect to stay on a board if they wish. This rule allows players a chance to escape the original game’s board.
This variant allows for a non-zero-sum game, limited only by the number of Monopoly boards on hand. While I do agree this allows the players who do not have the luck of inheritance a better chance, the player who gets the inheritance still has a significant advantage. While there will be a new board with property available to all players each game, the player who has inherited from the previous game will be in a far better position than the other players to acquire the new property. The main effect of the expanding game would seem to be that the heir player will have ever more property at the end of each game and thus the next heir will have an even greater advantage over the non-heirs. While the game is not zero-sum, those that lack the inheritance will probably still lose and those who inherit will generally do better.
So, I would close again with the question: would you play non-zero-sum Monopoly? Why or why not? I suspect most people would not, seeing it is an unfair game. The same, I would contend, also applies to real life.