Property Rights Pefinition: A Chicago Parking Case Study

Lynne Kiesling

We’ve had almost a foot of snow in Chicago this week, which means that the informal social norm for the decentralized definition of property rights has kicked in:


Chairs, boards, cones, fans, are all fair game for staking your claim to the space you so carefully dug out. I think this norm appeals so much to human fairness because it is so well grounded in Lockean property theory: you combine your labor with the environment to create something, you earn the right to that something. One reason that some institutions persist and are evolutionarily stable is that they simultaneously appeal to human nature and provide efficiency benefits.

Richard Epstein at the University of Chicago argued this in a paper in the Journal of Legal Studies in 2002. He argued that the Chicago parking property rights norm

… do better in an economic sense because they tend to reduce the dead time associated with these spaces. The system of incremental modification of parking places, however, is undermined by a political process that tends on balance to be more responsive to the interests of particular groups than to the overall carrying capacity of the commons.

2 thoughts on “Property Rights Pefinition: A Chicago Parking Case Study

  1. Lynne, not being stupid enough to live in Chicago (and, if I did, I’d spend the money to buy a parking spot!) I’m just wondering a couple of things:

    1) Do SUV owners need to dig out a spot? Or is this just a car owner thing? Unless the snow was really deep, I don’t need to plow my driveway, because I’ve got 4WD. I would think that the same thing would apply to on street parking.

    2) If everybody is saving their spot, where the hell are you going to park, if you don’t have a spot to begin with? Doesn’t this make a hallacious parking problem that much worse?

    3) At what point in the snow melt do you have to relinquish your spot? Why don’t people keep their spots permanently?

    As a lifelong suburbanite, these parking issues tax my limited intelligence! In fact, I haven’t been able to park overnight on the street in any of the towns I’ve lived in over the last 15 years or so. Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving my car on the street!

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