digging out property

After a couple of exhausting hours with a snow shovel, I’m inclined to republish this “lowercase liberty classic”:

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

homesteading the ephemeral

I grew up in New York City, where parking is already scarce without a snowstorm.

Once I had my license, my grandmother paid me a dollar a day to find her a parking spot.

(For those who don’t know NYC: alternate-side-of-the-street-parking laws mean your spot is only good until tomorrow.)

Ever since leaving New York, I’ve found parking to be plentiful. It’s one of the many reasons I’ve liked everywhere else I’ve lived better than New York.

The building we’ve lived in for a couple of years now (in the Pennsylvania town we’ll be leaving soon so we can raise our son back in central Virginia) has a parking lot for its tenants. So long as only tenants use it, there’s rarely a problem finding a place to park. Until it snows.

About a year ago, digging my wife’s car out from under the feet of snow that the plow had pushed on top of it, I started thinking about Lockean/Rothbardian homesteading theory, and how it might apply to circumstances more temporary than those we normally consider when talking about property rights.

If I dig out a parking space and drive to work (ha!) only to find someone else in “my” space when I return, am I wrong to feel robbed? Do I need the scare-quotes around “my” or is the space rightly mine? (Not in the sense of statute or municipal law, obviously, but in the ethical or natural law sense.)

A nominal parking space is not an actual parking space if actual cars can’t get to it. In the context of the snowstorm, I’m creating the actual parking space by digging out the nominal parking space. By mixing my labor — not with Locke’s land but with the space over the asphalt — am I not bringing property into being? Again, not in the long-term sense, but in the context of the snowstorm?

What I liked about the example is precisely that it does not fit most people’s understanding of property, which is associated, if not with land, then with things. But according to Rothbardian property theory, property is not in things but in the use of things.

I consider this to be the single most misunderstood point of private property theory, especially among those who consider themselves opposed to private property.

I figured I’d either blog the thought or write something up for Mises.org. Here it is a year later, another snowstorm come and gone, and I never did get around to writing any of it down.

But Jesse Walker has made my point for me:

Reason: This Asphalt Is Mine! Homesteaders in the snow

Walker has done his usual professional job of journalism — with real people in the real world — whereas my own thinking remained, as usual, at the theoretical level.

posted by bkmarcus on Tuesday, February 21, 2006

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