A Tragedy of the Commons in a Motel Parking Lot

My ain’t-no-private-property-around-here blues

I used to advise high school and junior college teachers on what to teach their economics students, with an emphasis on free-enterprise. Sometimes I forgot to include private property rights on my list. Never again.

I’ve been stranded for two days, with another day to go, by the mid-Atlantic snowstorm. I’m in a motel north of the Baltimore beltway. Unfortunately, the airport is south of the beltway, not that either the airport or the beltway are doing anybody any good right now. My rental car was totally buried the first night.

Yesterday, I went outside to test the water (snow). With my  hand–no shovels or scrapers–I brushed off quite a bit of snow before discovering I had the wrong car.

Last night my son walked a couple of miles in the snow with his shovel and scraper and dug me about 90 percent out. We decided to stop at 90 percent since I had nowhere to go and no roads to get there on.  After a bowl of soup, he walked back home, leaving me his shovel and scraper.

I could have driven a short distance to warm up the car, but here’s the thing: Some free rider (free parker) would get my cleared parking spot. Since the hotel had made no effort to help its customers dig out, I couldn’t expect them to enforce my  property rights to my cleared spot.

I looked down the row and saw several other cleared spots being hoarded by exhausted shovelers. Adding insult to injury, the hotel bar suspended happy-hour pricing.

If the airport ever opens, I’m going to put a note on my motel door: “Gone to Texas.”

Comments (3)

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  1. Sunshine says:

    You missed another lesson – how markets develop. While the hotel did not allocate the scarce resource – cleared parking spaces, nor provide equipment for cleaning cars parking in the parking lot, you had the tools (capital) for earning a profit for clearing the cars and digging those cars out of the snow. You could have charged per car, per inch of snow, per foot away from the nearest door (and inverse charge) or by the degree of urgency in having the car cleared.

    Since you were in Maryland, you would have abided by the various labor laws and reported the income to local, state and federal tax collectors.

  2. Jack says:

    Seems like ex-Congressman Crockett’s line is a little more appropos: You can go to hell, I’m going to Texas!”

  3. You could have left the car at the motel and stayed wiith your son, told the motel owner that the car was abandoned, and then used the money you saved on the hotel room to get your car – which would be free of snow having been hauled to their lot – back from the towing company. An analysis of the costs would have told you if this was a profitable alternative. Or you could have used a variation on Sunshine’s suggestion and rented the shovel and scraper, investing the profits in more tools to become a shovel and scraper baron.