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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.

4 thoughts on “Parking Chairs and Property Rights”

  1. Bruce is referring to this earlier post.

    In the abstract, there is a 2×2 matrix there, waiting to be analyzed.

    In the concrete, as an unrepentant sidezoomer, I should be steadfastly anti-chair. (I live in the suburbs and have a driveway and a garage, so technically I’m a “no chair.”) But I temper my anti-chairness, would temper it further if I lived in the city, because of the difference between static and dynamic analysis. That’s not an economics reference. Instead, it’s the difference imiplicit in the pragmatics of self-help. A lineupper who wants to object to my sidezooming can block my entry into his/her lane (that’s tough to do, because I can choose a different point of entry), or can chase me down after the fact (also unlikely, because I’m zooming all the time). A chair proprietor who objects to my parking in his/her space has an immobile object on which to express some serious anger.

  2. Mike: Nice shift from the theoretical basis of property rights to the pragmatic issues of rule enforcement.

    I think the latter is probably more important here, if we can agree that the state probably has little interest in making concentrated efforts to shift whatever rule it is that the community “adopts” — e.g. placing chair, moving chairs, or going after those who use “self-help” against norm violators. Though legally distinct, I think community parking norms play out in ways fairly close to family norms.

    I constantly tell my students that there is a lot that is Lockean about our property instincts and a lot that is Lockean about what gets us into property disputes. The fact that the “reaping/sowing” approach falls apart fairly quickly when you apply it formally doesn’t mean that it doesn’t dominate as a heuristic.

  3. It just struck me as an interesting comparison, without knowing why, but now I see a connection: is there a sort of property right to a place in line? If you think that being in line gives you certain rights, it seems like you should feel that way about shoveling too, and vice versa. So, Mike, you’re consistent. I’m not positive I am.

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