Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Property Rights and Neighbors

For better or worse, I tend to be confrontation-averse.  But five minutes ago, I had a brief, unpleasant interaction with a neighbor over a little property rights issue -- and what's worse, an issue I wouldn't care about, except that it's a property rights issue! 

Readers, he parked on my lawn.  Not the whole vehicle, mind you -- just 2 wheels of his SUV, which he had parked in the street in front of my house.  But the wheels were completely off the street and on my front lawn.

Now, I have to confess -- my lawn sucks.  Compared to my neighbors, it is evident that I don't care much about my lawn.  I mow it every week, but here in suburban Minnesota, that's tantamount to saying I feed my kids occasionally.  I have another neighbor  who -- I kid you not -- measures his grass, that would make a derby horse weep at its blueness, with a ruler to make sure it's even across his yard.  Me?  Crab grass, dandelions, thistles, it's all the same to me as long as its mowed eventually and not an eyesore.

So perhaps in the ethos of suburban Minnesota, I had unwittingly communicated a message to my neighbors (after all, as Carol Rose tells us, property is a type of language) that I didn't care what happened to my lawn.  And frankly, that's mostly true, except that, dammit, it's my lawn to care or not care about!

I don't know where this primal feeling comes from that wells up in me when I see my property rights disrespected, even inadvertently, but it's there: this cold anger that makes me put at risk social relations that are potentially far more valuable than two wheel-sized patches of dead grass. 

Even though I know it's absurd, I wanted his damn SUV off of my lawn.  So, what to do?

The way I saw it, I had four options:

(1) Ignore it and stew; or

(2) leave a note on the windshield; or

(3) walk around the SUV several times, hands on hips, shaking my head, hoping the neighbor would notice my unhappiness and come move the SUV; or

(4) go knock on the neighbor's door and tell him I didn't want him parked on my lawn.

As usual, I picked the most ridiculous option: #3.  I probably looked like a peacock in a mating ritual.  But, as I was going back into my house, my neighbor emerged from his to move the SUV. 

Now, I felt like I couldn't not say anything without looking like a total wimp.

So, I said, "Hey, you know, it's parked on the lawn."

He said, "Yeah, I didn't notice it when I pulled in."

But, you see, that's impossible.  I mean, the vehicle was tipped up at angle (slight, but impossible not to notice!  I think . . . . .), so if he really didn't notice, it was because he couldn't care less about my property rights.  And, if he did notice, but did it anyway, it was also because he couldn't care less about my property rights.  Therefore, I zapped him with this witty rejoinder:

"OK, thanks."

He moved the SUV deep into his own driveway -- passive agressively deep? -- and went back into his house, unsmiling, as did I.  No doubt he's furiously typing away on his own blog right now -- PeopleWhoParkonOtherPeople'sLawns.com -- about what a jerk I am, and how if there's ever a fire or a tornado, he's not going to pull my family out of the wreckage, because I've violated the bonds of good neighborliness in favor of the assertion of my property rights.  I can't say Robert Ellickson didn't warn me!

This episode begs two questions, at least:

(1) where does this primal urge to assert our property rights come from, even if we don't much care about the property itself?  and

(2) what kind of rotten luck does it take to have a property professor move in next door?

Mark A. Edwards

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Thanks. That was very funny and refreshing. I see that kind of response in lots of folks (including students) regularly. And a number of cases suggest that neighbor to neighbor property rights conflicts can often be pretty prickly. No doubt sociobiologists would link it to some territorial instincts that we share with other animals. Some economists or "broken window" theorists would explain/justify your response as an efficient and effective "signal" to prevent more intrusive and substantial intrusions on property rights. Or maybe you were just having a rough day and this put you over the edge. My question is: Would you have handled it differently if the neighbor had also been a friend?

Posted by: Tim Iglesias | Sep 22, 2010 9:14:53 AM

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