JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 11, 2010
If you clear a parking space in the snow for your car, are you allowed to keep that space? The Washington Post has a good rundown of the laws surrounding this question:
And for those who managed to liberate their cars from the Snowpocalypse of 2010, another tricky moral dilemma can lead to some volatile confrontations: If you dig your car out from its frozen tomb, do you then own that parking spot until the sun melts open the rest of the curbside space?
Washington's long history of relatively mild winters has left residents without a common sense of snow etiquette to help answer that question.
Boston has codified its citizens' right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you're away at work. In Chicago, blocking a parking spot is illegal, but city officials acknowledge an informal rule of dibs if you've done the digging.
Ethically, it's a complicated question. The act of shoveling out a parking space is almost a perfect example of Locke's definition of private property in the state of nature -- something you have created by mixing your labor with freely available materials. Clearly the incentive of ownership is needed in order to spur this shoveling work. Why should I spend hours breaking my back to liberate my car only to take it out and find myself stranded when I return?
On the other hand, let's consider the communitarian objection. Granting property rights to a shoveled-out space has limitations of its own. Creating a property right out of cleared spaces only gives people an incentive to clear out a single space. Thus, many streets will go for the entire duration of the snowstorm with most of their spots covered with snow. Why shovel out more than one space on your street? Yet sometimes we would like to drive to another neighborhood to park. The individual ownership principle essentially makes that impossible.
Ultimately, like a good market liberal, I side with the Lockean concept of property rights but with a proviso. We should be granted the right to keep the space we shovel, but after a reasonable amount of time, we should also be required to clear the other spaces in front of our property.
The status quo in most cities is a Hobbesian state of nature. And as Hobbes observed, and the Post confirms, the state of nature is a brutal place:
Keith Green, 37, said he's heard too many scary stories to slip into a spot someone has blocked off. After the 1996 storm, a man was killed outside New York after a dispute over a shoveled parking spot. In Philadelphia in 2000, it happened again. In South Boston, a handful of assaults, slashed tires and other cases of vandalism end up in District Court each year after drivers are perceived to have broken the code.