Rawls and Monopoly

I never really get the chance to teach Rawls in my classes, since I’m usually teaching either history or metaphysics and epistemology. But if I did, I think I would assign students to create Rawls’ version of the Monopoly board game.

I think you don’t have to change the game at all to get Nozick’s view of economic justice. Each player has the freedom to invest or not invest, and so individuals have maximal economic freedom. But Rawls suggests that, if everyone starts in an equal position, the outcomes will be just only if the players agree to a difference principle: there can be a change in the economic distribution only if the change makes the worst-off player better off (roughly). So how would the Monopoly game rules change? One idea would be to tax every transaction so that some amount goes to the poorest player. There probably are other more creative changes that could work too.

When I express this idea to folks, they complain, “But then no one would ever win!” Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Is an economic system just if it allows there to be losers? Especially: losers who lose due to the luck of the dice, and luck of the draw?


Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

3 thoughts on “Rawls and Monopoly”

  1. I think that Vince’s comment points exactly to why this example of the Monopoly board game is somewhat limited.

    There is so much here, but I will try to focus.

    First, I think it is unfair to say that Monopoly comes close to Nozick’s vision of the world. It actually removes anything compelling about taking Nozick’s side in the first place. Monopoly is much closer to a totalitarian regime than a capitalist one. One asserts dominance by arriving first and can only hold onto their limited power by driving other people out of business or effectively killing them. Ironically, Monopoly is a game of politics, not business.

    Nozick would of course recognize the mutually beneficial exchange of the market. Instead of being stuck with a given endowment (properties) and forced into a zero-sum game competition (even passing go is just inflation, not changing the number of assets in a game. Even the houses and hotels don’t provide a better experience for the traveler, they actually make it worse. Imagine going to Paris in the winter and being told, that for your better enjoyment of the experience you should sleep on the street).

    So, at the end of the day what is important in Huenemann’s question is not: does it shed light on Rawls’s theory, but rather: how we feel about random chance in society. This is an evolving concept. I find it odd that the modern world 1) rejects randomness 2) doesn’t have a coherent theory of the opposite. This seems to lead down a path of cosmic justice. In order for the dice roll critique to have any teeth, it has to imply a solution. (E.G. Two of my students are presenting their papers on divorce’s impact on kids tonight, they reject the cosmic justice attitude that bad marriages should stay together for the kid’s good, finding that a good divorces teach kids to deal productively with adversity, a valuable lesson).

    At the end of the day it is a false dichotomy. The choice between random cosmic luck and rigid rules vs. no scarcity and completely fair endowments. Rather, it seems that our actual economy has loose, vague, and indeterminate rules combined with distinct cosmic injustice, but allows for a chance for people to make the best out of their situation by finding opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange. It doesn’t take a free market economist to see inefficiency in the world, but why is it that my non-economics friends seem unable to grant that voluntary exchange is by definition mutually beneficial? A world of cosmic equity seems like a game of monopoly where everyone when handed the dice says, “Pass.”


  2. Very interesting ideas. Vince, you’re even worse at devising fun games than I am!

    Michael, I still think Monopoly is relevantly Nozickian. The initial distribution of things is just (or at least agreed to by all players). And each transaction is just (or least sanctioned by all the players). So, he’d say, every subsequent distribution is just. We might make the game more Nozickian by allowing players to charge variable rents, and perhaps allowing house vs. hotel options for tenants. But I can’t see anything in the existing game Nozick would identify as unjust.

    But you’re right that a big question here is about whether distribution based on luck is just. Rawls would urge that the effects of luck need to be mitigated by concerns for justice – that we’re not entitled to everything luck throws our way. And, maybe more controversially, his view seems to be that being able to make the best of our situation and to find opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange is at least partly a matter of luck.


  3. My major source of “epistemic closure” with regard to Rawls is my training in statistics.

    I was once privy to an excellent conversation among 25-30 well trained philosophers where my bias was firmly entrenched. The discussion turned to Rawls’s understanding of fairness and testable implications. The world is modeled using two categories, theoretically relevant variables and theoretically irrelevant variables.

    E.G.: Is it fair that I have to get the pancake griddle down from the top shelf all the time because my wife was born with a slightly “handicapped” reach? I would say that my endowment of height and hers is a theoretically relevant consideration for the question. We don’t seek to solve this issue by cutting off 5 inches from my height nor do we look for 2.5 inches from each arm. My understanding of where Rawls and Nozick would agree is that some negotiation takes place between my wife and myself recognizing both the endowment advantage and the “just” outcome.

    If we force Nozick into a box where he defends my ability to tell my wife to get over it and Rawls as someone who requires the constant attention of the taller spouse, we don’t get anywhere. I think they both would appreciate the existence of ladders without saying that I am off the hook for grabbing the griddle some portion of the time.

    It is theoretically irrelevant for me to reduce the problem to a category, suppose the notion that cooking is for women to be used as an excuse. Were this to be the case I would say to my wife, I don’t know how you are going to solve the problem, but it is your job to figure it out… This would make for bad social justice as well as for bad marital harmony.

    When my family played Monopoly (and I can’t speak for others) we typically made hugely favorable deals. For example, we said, I will give you that property if you forgo all rent charges for me when I land on your property for the next 10 rounds. We accepted the convention that free parking was a lottery where all money paid to chance or community chest was awarded to the player that had landed on it.

    These rules made the game more like what I understand to be the real-life economy. It was “loose, vague, and indeterminant.” The game was typically played until people conceded, or until all the properties were owned. It wasn’t until later that I knew the game had an unraveling solution designed into the rules where one winner could establish dominance in a matter of rounds. The play is programmable if one is good at calculating expected values in their head. It is all reduced to random chance and human error. But it still creates a problem with the analogy. No one “wins” life. We all lose (by the definition of monopoly) so why would we think that the economy is something that is zero sum. The difference between life and the game is that in the game I have no real way to make everyone better off. Again, the building of a hotel is a net probable loss to everyone else in the game!?! It would be beneficial for all the players to pay the player whose turn it is to not build a hotel. It is this that seems to exactly contradict Nozick’s implicit assumption of positive sum. I read history as growth from 500,000 people in unrecorded history to 7 billion today as positive sum. If the world is really a zero sum game than we are better looking to Nietzsche than to either Rawls or Nozick. I confess, I read Millian progress into Nozick, so as my friends would say, I am “all balled up” on this debate.


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