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yesh omrim

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Park it and Locke it

31 December 2004

The custom of reserving the parking space that you shoveled out strikes me as an excellent application of John Locke’s theory of original property acquisition. A parking space on a public street (absent meters and so forth) is common property, but once the owner of a car mixes his or her labor with it, it becomes his or her own (with some reservations), and the driver leaves a token to mark the acquisition. It’s not kosher to dig out a parking space, mark it, and then leave it empty for days on end, because then you are violating the Lockean principle that when you take from the commons, you should only take what you’re going to actually use.

Of course, according to a strict reading of Locke, all this only applies in the state of nature, and now that we’re bound by the social contract, we should respect the laws of the civil government, which (at least in Boston) does not recognize any right to keep the parking space that you shoveled out. Then again, if driving in Boston is not the state of nature, it’s as close to it as I ever want to get.

Locke, of course, has had a great influence on English and American political philosophy. In other parts of the world, competing theories of property and government had a stronger influence. So I am wondering: when the snow is a foot deep in France or Sweden or Lithuania, do people also have the custom that you can keep the parking space that you dig out? Are contemporary Americans moved by the dead hand of an eighteenth-century Briton, or was Locke merely using philosophical language to formalize a common human tendency?

Update: In Sweden, the city actually plows the sides of the street so people can park there. What a concept!