In one way or another, this winter has been tough on all of us here in Philadelphia. And for those that are forced to commute in and around the city, it has been particularly tough. As a car-driving, street-parking resident of center city, I know all too well how frustrating finding a parking spot can be on a regular day, let alone when the streets are packed with grayish brown mountains of snow.
During the snowiest days of the winter months, the daily anxiety of the parking-spot treasure hunt can evolve into something much more sinister. After residents devote countless hours digging out their cars and parking spots, it is not uncommon to see these spots then occupied by chairs or cones or trashcans. In fact, this informal way of “marking ones spot” is practiced all year round in certain parts of Philadelphia. But something changes in winter; somehow that area of the street that you dug out becomes yours. It becomes your property. It seems almost inevitable, then, that tempers could flare and things could quickly get out of hand (it should be noted, though, that this is not unique to Philadelphia).
How can we make sense of this? Why is it that a ‘stolen’ parking spot during a summer month might end, at worst, in a foul-mouthed verbal exchange when the exact same act during a winter month might end in violence?
The philosophical insights of 17th century thinker John Locke (1632 – 1704) might help us understand the issue a bit more.
Among the most influential political philosophers of the modern period, Locke’s writings went on to heavily influence and form the basis of the US Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Of particular importance for the current discussion are Locke’s insights regarding property rights.
For Locke, human beings come together and form a political state in order to protect their property. In his own words:
“The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690)
The basic idea is that absent any form of social contract, human existence is one of ungoverned lawlessness (think: Walking Dead without the zombies). And although Locke suggests that, for the most part, people are rational and social creatures, he does not contend that life will be without problems. Thus, a primary concern for people free of governmental oversight will be the protection of their property.
This of course begs the question: If the conventional understanding of property is defined by governments how does one have property absent a government?
Locke once again provides the answer in his Second Treatise of Civil Government:
“… every man has property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”
Locke’s understanding of ‘property’ extends far beyond the idea of material possessions. The core concept here is that we have the right to our own body (and as an extension of our body, the labor that flows from it). Furthermore, the products resulting from ones labor can rightly be considered ones property.
So for your average, say, South Philadelphian that spent all morning shoveling out her spot on the street, something is different about that parking spot in winter versus summer: Labor. By mixing her labor with the elements of nature (snow), she can now lay claim to the result of her labor (the spot) in a way that she could not have previously. So when her unsuspecting neighbor takes the shoveled spot, they literally are taking it. Although technically the spot is a part of the publicly owned street, the psychological interpretation is one of literal theft and a violation of ones rights.
To be clear, this essay is by no means meant to justify violence over shoveled parking spots. Rather, the intention is to try and form a conceptual understanding of extreme human behavior given the snowy circumstances.
As Americans we take our rights seriously. And although John Locke was an Englishman, he too understood the importance of rights. In fact, it was Locke that identified the “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the right to own property,” – sound familiar?