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.