Snow in Chicago Teaches Lessons about Property Rights

John R. La Plante

December's historic levels of snowfall gave Chicago's residents a lesson in the importance of private property rights--and what happens in the absence of those rights.

Due to the city's inability to clear streets completely, many residents had to clear their own parking spaces. Residents who undertook the strenuous physical task of clearing their own parking spaces often sought to secure those spaces before they drove away by placing pieces of lawn furniture and other household items in the spots.

This informal method of staking a claim was sometimes respected by other drivers, who would pass up the chair-occupied spaces. Those who instead moved the furniture onto the curb and parked in the spaces cleared by someone else risked vandalism, a form of rough justice. Mayor Daley appeared to endorse the practice, noting "This is Chicago."

The controversy attracted national media coverage, as parking space squatters squared off with equally furious residents. The parking war is a classic example of several economic principles, including the free rider problem (the fact that a person may park in a space shoveled out by someone else leads to an undersupply of clear parking spaces), the efficiency of alternative methods of enforcing property claims, and the importance of social norms or a reliable system of law to adjudicate disputes and increase socially useful production.


As appeared in the February 2001 edition of The Heartlander, a publication of The Heartland Institute

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