Friday, November 21, 2008

The burdens of "private" property: A case study

The neighbors have a private garage in an area of Philadelphia where parking is scarce, and visitors frequent. What a luxury! They never have to look for a spot like the rest of us.

Now if only they could find the owner of the vehicle who has blocked their driveway on any given day. They knock on doors and check the bakery. They fret over what to do. They are nice people -- they'd rather not tow -- but they have things to do.

My spouse searches for a spot after working all day, and sometimes all night. But she has 150 or so potential spots to work with, often with reasonable success -- occasionally not. It can be annoying, but look at the bright side: she can leave whenever she wants. Moreover, she did not pay a premium for this freedom, bundled as it might have been into the cost of her housing. Compared with the amount of time and energy our neighbors spend trying to "enforce" access to their garage, I expect my wife spends considerably less just by parking on the street. What a luxury!


It is often the case that when perceived community rights -- for example, sufficient parking -- are subordinated to private property rights -- the right of individuals to purchase exemption from collective problems -- the community ends up winning one way or the other. This is inevitable in my view: No matter how many signs my neighbors post, without a broader solution to the parking problem, there will always be somebody who needs to just "pop out for a second" to grab something in the Italian Market. You can say that is wrong, or illegal, or whatever; but in practice, that does not count for very much: people still need to park.

If individuals have rights, then all individuals have rights, not particular individuals. This is widely misconceived in our society, premised as it is on the inviolability of private property rights. The fact that words are written on paper to insulate one group of individuals from the plight of a majority of individuals has never in history proven very persuasive to the majority, which is why riot police are necessary to make the point. Human groups that work through problems by consensus don't normally devolve into violence -- which is why nobody attempts to tear gas Grandma over the Thanksgiving turkey, even if they don't eat meat.

My neighbors, being the least influential of the "propertied" class -- i.e., mere homeowners -- may enjoy the benefit of an odd zoning officer lending a sympathetic ear to their troubles. Yes, it is a shame people have no respect for the law, he will tell them. But because they have no clout -- neither in property nor in numbers -- they will have to deal with the problem themselves; he will say this in so many words, if not explicitly: Not all property is created equal.

This is just one mundane example, but I believe the principle can be extrapolated generally -- to health care or the environment, for example, and many others in which private property claims exist in conflict with perceived public needs.

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