My post on the law and ethics of property rights and shoveled out parking spaces turns out to have stepped into the middle of a long-established and somewhat bitter debate. The orthodox libertarian position is represented by my friend Jesse Walker of Reason, this 2001 paper by Richard Epstein (which I haven't read; apologies if I'm mischaracterizing it), and Fred S. McChesney. Mike Madison at Pittsblog is moderately skeptical of granting property rights to space-diggers. The Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn has crusaded against property rights for years.
I see weaknesses in both sides of the debate. Zorn, for the skeptics, argues:
What would happen if the city suddenly banned "dibs"? Those who park on the street would still have to dig out their cars. More spaces would come available.
Not necessarily! Some would, because they have no alternative to using their car. I personally, wouldn't -- why spend hours digging out a space only to zip to the supermarket and risk not only having my spot taken, but being trapped with no place to put my car?
On the other hand, the libertarian property-rights advocates paint an unrealistically rosy picture. (I'm shocked!) McChesney:
[A]n economist would predict that permitting private property would incite others to expand the amount of space. And so it does. Not only do those who dug out their cars the first morning have a space thereafter, but neighbors whose cars were not on the street begin to hack away the snow masses created by city plows to make a space for themselves.
By "an economist," of course, he means a free market purist. And judging from my experience, that purist would be wrong. In my neighborhood, and most neighborhoods I visit, the amount of spaces exceeds the number of cars. But the property rights system only gives you the incentive to clear one space for every car you own. I see streets with one or two cars, and space after space still covered with snow and unusable. In practice, I'm only able to drive places that have covered or professionally-maintained parking lots. Most of the places my wife and I like to drive -- to hop on the Metro, or go to the gym -- have been off-limits for more than a week because we rely on street parking that's unavailable.
The best solution I can see involves allowing property rights for a limited time, but either having those expire (as many cities do), requiring property owners to clear street spaces abutting their land, or having snowplows clear those spaces after they've cleared the streets.
(The photo above was taken by a friend who lives few blocks away.)