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Parking Chairs and Property Rights

From Pittsburgh to Washington DC and north to Baltimore and Boston, cars in giant snowbanks mean that the thoughts of property law professors turn again to an eternal phenomenon:  If I dig out a parking spot to free my car, do I “own” the resulting parking space?  If so, why, and in what sense?  Yes, I know that Boston tries to regulate the phenomenon. Is that a workable compromise?

If and when my university re-opens, I can ask my students.  Meanwhile, I have tried to capture most of the arguments in this recurring debate in a post directed mostly at my Pittsburgh readership:

Pro-chair (and another essay that is especially pro-chair): I cleared the spot; therefore I own the spot. And if I didn’t own the spot after I cleared it, then I wouldn’t have an adequate incentive to clear the spot. Moreover, the community benefits from my clearing the spot, because that’s one less spot that public authorities will have to clear. And long-time community acceptance of the tradition shows that it is welfare-promoting. The pro-chair argument is simple and straightforward.

Anti-chair (that’s a small-ish Facebook group) (and chair-skeptic): The anti-chair argument is long and complicated. The idea that “I built it, therefore I own it” has a sophisticated but problematic pedigree in the philosophy of John Locke. For the most part, American property law rejects Locke as a justification for property rights schemes, even informal ones. (The fact that parking spaces occupy technically “public” property is relevant but not dispositive. I can’t cut down a diseased tree in Schenley Park, put a fence around the clearing, and claim that the land inside is “mine.” But I can’t do the same thing on my neighbor’s land, either.) No one needs the incentive of ownership here to clear out parking spots; mostly, people are clearing out their own cars, which they would do anyway. “Ownership” of the spot is a kind of cherry on top of the sundae – a bonus for doing your family duty. The community suffers from parking chair claims, because people who need places to park are foreclosed from a number of possible options. The strongest argument against the chairs is that enforcement of the parking chair regime is carried out mostly by self-help, which means various forms of vandalism. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that, whether or not the local community thinks that it’s OK. The pro-chair folks tend to assume that it’s the *other guy’s* car that gets keyed, or loses its side-view mirror, or is covered with ice. Community acceptance of the tradition doesn’t show that it’s welfare-promoting; instead, it shows that the community willing to internalize the benefits and externalize the costs of private enforcement.

There is no answer in this debate. The problem is that the parking chair phenomenon has been around for so long that no one is really sure what would happen if parking chairs *weren’t* allowed. Maybe everyone would clear their spots anyway, and everyone would have places to park when they come back from work or running errands. Maybe no one would clear their spots, hoarding parking spaces out of fear that they wouldn’t have a place to park after work or running errands. Maybe the population of the neighborhood would turn over rapidly enough that no one remembers that the place has to follow the same rules that were in effect decades ago.

Maybe the streets would be cleared, and everyone would take the bus.