Clearing Snow From Your Parking Space: What Would Locke Do?

Jonathan Chait has an entertaining post at his The New Republic blog entitled “Hobbes, Locke, and Snowmageddon.” He begins:

If you clear a parking space in the snow for your car, are you allowed to keep that space?

Here are the options:

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.

I don’t live in a city, but I think I lean slightly toward the communitarian position here.

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