Chicago (where I live) just had a fairly large blizzard (20 or so inches or about 51 cm) .  This, as you might imagine, causes problems for transportation.  Despite a robust system of public transportation, Chicago is a car city.  When it snows, these cars–often parked on the streets, get buried beneath mountains of plowed snow.  This creates a unique sort of property problem. 

It goes like this.  You spend four hours liberating your car from its snow tomb, or creating a parking spot where before there was just piled snow, so you conclude that on account of your mixing your labor with that parking spot, that you can call "dibs" on it; you worked it, it's yours.

Having just liberated my own vehicle from a snow tomb, I have a bit of sympathy for this approach.  Nonetheless, I'd prefer an honor system.  A student of mine this morning put it like this: if you are looking for parking, then you have yourself worked to free your car from a spot, which is now open.  Not a bad idea, though it needs some filling out.  

Another student forwarded me the following argument against dibs (from Time Out Chicago):

Why is dibs a bad thing? While snowfall can be a magical thing, snow doesn't magically turn public spaces into private property. It's a very un-Chicagolike tradition: When snow falls, all of a sudden neighbors become vehement and territorial.

If someone puts in the effort to shovel a spot, they don't deserve a claim on that space? If you push someone's car out of the snow, you don't say you own their car, do you? I also question how much sweat people put in. The snow that fell [in mid-December] was not enough that people had to dig their cars out, yet there are chairs all over.

Is there evidence that dibs is a problem? There's a thinly veiled threat of violence associated with dibs. People who've violated dibs have gotten their cars keyed. I once heard a story about someone breaking the back window of someone's car and putting a hose in there and turning it on.

Doesn't tradition carry some weight? Not all traditions are good. Political corruption is another Chicago tradition.

Even though I'm leaning against dibs, these are really terrible reasons.  The second one, especially.  The principle works on the Lockean (or something like it) theory of property.  If you mix your labor with it, you've earned it.  In this case you earn it temporarily, and no, it's not like claiming someone's car is yours.  


on dibs from the New York, I mean, Huffington Post.

17 thoughts on “Dibs”

  1. On the weak analogy about pushing the car out of the snow: Obviously, the person pushing the car has no right to ownership of the vehicle beacuase shim mixed shim's labor with it; however, shim may have a right to the vacated plot of land that resided beneath the vehicle.

  2. I'm not sure how the honor system you've hinted at is really an different than the dibs tradition. In fact, it might be more problematic. Consider:
    1.) I shoveled out this spot, ergo, it is my (temporary) property.
    2.) I shoveled out this space, ergo, and potential space similarly cleared is my (temporary) property.
    In (1), I only lay claim to that space with which I have "mixed my labor." But in (2), I extend that claim to any space, whether cleared by me or not.  The claim that one's labor entitles one to a particular spot is tenuous already; extending it to any potential spot seems indefensible. At best it can be described as an exchange of the spot that I cleared for the spot person X cleared, but it's still unclear whether there's any real connection between that person's labor and mine, such that I am entitled to that spot.
    I'm also worried that (2) carries an implicit assumption about the number of spaces versus the number of cars such that such an honors system is even practical, I suppose that's largely an empirical question.

  3. Hm.  Well, on the honors system I envision, which is not a system and which I did not envision, it goes like this.  You move your car around after liberating it, you can park in a liberated spot.  If you did not liberate a spot, you ought to liberate one, and then leave it for the next person.  It's not your property, you're just morally entitled to park somewhere (and obviously legally entitled as there is no such thing as dibs) because you have contributed to parking spot liberation.  You have no property claim to it, you have a moral claim as someone who has pitched in.  The person who doesn't pitch in, and parks in someone's spot, is just kind of a dowsh.

  4. But what grounds that claim? The fact that I labored in like manner to the one who cleared the spot in which I am about to park? I suppose that might be enough, but then I wonder from where do I might derive the normative force of "you ought to liberate a spot?" I guess I'm intuitively attracted to the honors model more than dibs, but I still wonder whether it isn't the more arbitrary of the two.
    Imagine that. A pragmatist asking for grounds. I'll be made anathema!

    Imagine that. A pragmatist asking for grounds.

  5. The cheater doesn't care. He/she isn't shamed by their behavior. We have no social enforcement of this norm like we do for bad manners. The brick-a-brack in the street is the social watchdog for the very honor system you propose (or so I suggest).

  6. Nevyn, I'm not sure that works, either. Suppose the milk crates in the street are the "watchdog" for the honors system. If I have shoveled a spot, and placed my milk crates, your assertion seems to suggest that if I wish to park in another neighborhood, I can remove any milk crates I find in any space, so long as I have cleared and marked a space of my own. 

  7. There is no legal force to dibs, that much has been established.  The dibs system, such as it is, doesn't get people circulating (it caused an obstruction to an afternoon beer purchase over here), so no one can claim it's efficient.  It'd be more, er, practical, if everyone just pitched in, and did some clearing, unless, of course, you're just going to run in for some smokes, or some pop tarts for tomorrow.

  8. It would of course be nice if everyone pitched in; there's no question that, ethically, we all should pitch in. There's simply no means of enforcement. In a situation in which there is none, the tacit threat is preferable to actual harm. Phil, if you park in a space someone else has cleared and marked, you're in violation of the moral "significant snow rule" norm. Should there be such a norm at all? In a non-pitch-in situation, I think such a norm is justified. The space I work for is not completely public anymore. I think I have a right to protect my potion of the property. I'm protecting the space above the street that I cleared that would have been unusable without my labor.

  9. I don't disagree, Nevyn. All I am saying is that under the everybody-pitch-in system, there's no reason, so long as I have shoveled and adequately protected a space elswhere, that I cannot park into a space cleared elsewhere.

    Dibs only works because 1.) most people are lazy and 2.) most people are bastards. If the residents of Chicago could actually just agree to shovel out their spaces, the streets would be just as parkable as they are on any snow day. But failing that, dibs seems the more justifiable way of doing things.

  10. Ethical systems with enforcement and assurances are called "laws."  The "everyone pitch in" view is an ethical, not a legal, system.  It is therefore not enforceable with anything but opprobium.  Like I say, if you don't help out, if you leach of off the labor of others, without contributing, you're a dowsh.

  11. I started writing this comment against the idea that "you work for it, it is yours" is adequate for thinking about this problem, but along the way found two arguments that might support it. I've always thought that "dibs" was crazy, but there might be a couple of reasons in its favor.
    Locke seems to argue that taking property through labor is justified if in doing so I'm not depriving others of access to needed resources. Although the mixing of my labor can make a resource my property, this is only just if in doing so I'm not depriving someone else of that resource or letting it go to waste.  In this case, that would seem to count against the idea that my labor justifies expropriating the space even temporarily.
    If the space is mine because I dig it out, I ought to be able to dig out multiple spaces and rent them to others–maybe dig out the whole street and turn it into a parking lot. If not, then there is something connected to actual use and need, and not just that it is mine because I worked for it. Perhaps, because I "need" the space, I can temporarily expropriate it from the common possession, and use it until we return to a condition of plenty, when I have to go back to hunting for spaces or renting a garage. So this would be something like an exemption (what happens in Vegas) from everyday morality brought on by temporary limitations of a normally common resource. I'm not sure why this wouldn't then work for neighborhoods with parking problems year round, though I suppose it might justify permit parking.
    Perhaps a pragmatic argument is more compelling.If you weren't quasi-guaranteed that the space would be there when you returned, you would have an incentive to never move your car during snow which would make clearing streets more difficult, and might provide incentives to shut down the city and penalize people who have pressing obligations and must use their cars.

  12. I believe what we are really getting at is that dibs is a social means of addressing the free rider problem that is created when it snows. The free rider problem (from my Psci background) is mostly illustrated by public television or radio. It is a commodity that is provided to everyone and everyone has access to it but only a small portion of the people who utilize the resource pay for it, everyone else who does not pay their fair share is just a free rider.
    Luckily (I guess) my dad was recently classified as disabled and therefore now has a handicapped spot out in front of his house. However, prior to this designation and through out the process leading up to this designation, his knees were still very bad and my mother is older, and they both have a hard time moving around as it is let alone trudging through 20 in of snow. At times when it snows like this, either my brother-in-law or myself go to their house and shovel it for them or my father will stay up all night going outside every so often or staying out there and shoveling as the snow falls because he is crazy and likes to torture himself. (this is always a fun argument, because the old man doesn’t like to acknowledge he can’t do things like he used to , let alone ask for help even after being labeled “disabled” but that is a different story)
    Because of their mobility issues they do not just want a single path cut through the snow on their sidewalk they want the majority of their walkway clear and they keep it that way. They have one of those sidewalks, which have two rectangular patches of grass, and they pile the snow there but cut a wide path from the sidewalk to the curbside so they can get to and from their car easily. This makes it easier for them when they go to and from grocery shopping and stuff like that. They also shovel a decent size spot for their vehicle out in front of the house because if their car gets stuck they cannot just go and push it out of a spot. So they take their time and make sure to clear away the snow or have me or my brother-in-law do so to ensure this does not happen.
    Now prior to them having the handicap spot in front of their house, the neighbors from down the street, who only cut a shovel’s width path through the snow in front of their house, would park in spots that other people cleared. These neighbors would also not fully shovel out the space their car was in, they would only remove enough snow that with some pushing and tire spinning they could get their car out. So, granted my parents neighbors are a**holes but this is a form of the free rider problem.
    The problem is this, my parent’s worked hard, or someone associated to them worked hard (paid) to make sure that their needs were met, i.e. they had a space that they could get their vehicle in and out of without having to push and they had an ample path to enable them to walk without having to overcome obstacles or walk more gingerly (a public good). Now prior to the Handicap sign and if there was no dibs custom my parents would have no way of ensuring enough of the public good (parking spaces) was properly met unless they had us shovel the whole block. And still the jerks from down the street are just free riders who are not putting as much into the production of parking space as they are getting from having neighbors like my parents who produce proper parking spaces and walking paths.
    So, in the end the dibs custom is a social attempt to address the free rider problem, it is more than just calling the person a dowsh. It is a customary practice that in some way shames people into compliance or at least makes the social expectation clearly understood.

  13. *** The first paragraph of my previous comment is supposed to end with "Here is a scenario that highlights the free rider problem created by snow."
    Ultimately I don't like the idea of having to have laws in place to ensure our social duties to one another. I like that we have some customary practices that enforce duties, I think it adds character to our city.
    Also I think the previous discussions doesn't address the elderly and those who are not as abled bodied as the rest of us. Now my parents have a law protecting their space but a year ago when they were as able bodied as they are now they didn't. So would it be okay for non-able bodied people to have dibs and those who can shovel out multiple parking spaces with out a problem not a have dibs? 

  14. This is an interesting discussion, and from what I can glean for the responses, it would seem that the people not in favor of a "dibs" system either do not own a vehicle, or park in a garage, and thusly do not need a street parking space.
    For the record, I do park in a garage, but my mom has a spot out in front of her house, designated handicapped, which prevents anyone else from parking there since it is a permitted space.
    I worked over two hours to clear out that spot, parking my mom's car in the spot behind hers, which I also cleared out for our neighbor.  All-in-all, over a three day period I cleared out 6 parking spots for neighbors as well as clearing my and my neighbor's garage spaces.  Every spot on the street I cleared had "dibs" chairs, table trays, milk crates, and one person used cardboard boxes filled with snow for weight.
    Our block is pretty respectful of the "dibs" system as well as pretty good at helping out each other, so the "dibs" system works for us.  But just two blocks away, a woman who needed to shovel out her space used a neighbor's shovel that he left on his stairs.  Right after she returned the shovel to its original spot, he pulled out his snow blower and burried her car for using his shovel without permission.
    So, for me, the dibs system is a system of honor, not morality.  I will be glad to help you dig out your car, and will gladly accept your assistance.  But if you park in my freshly dug out spot without digging out a spot for yourself, then I will have words with that person, but I would not go so far as damaging their car (For example, you park in my spot while digging out yours is cool).  Have the honor of digging out your own spot without just taking mine.  Or at least have the honor to ask for help digging out your spot.  Don't just take any available spot and leave it at that.

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