Wonderful Property Rights Dispute In San Francisco

Via @gojomo, I was directed to this article and video about a property rights dispute at a San Francisco public soccer field. As @gojomo points out, the property rights dispute mirrors some of the points I made many months ago about pick-up basketball and Grab-What-You-Can World.

On one side of the dispute are neighborhood kids who use the field following a conventional pick-up system. Under this system, two teams of seven play against one another until one team scores a specific number of points, thereby ending the (relatively short) game. When that happens, the losing team must exit the field, and a new team of seven made up of those waiting to play enters. This process manages the scarcity of the field by rotating people on and off, giving everyone a chance to play.

On the other side of the dispute are (what appear to be) a group of tech people. They insist that this pick-up system of scarcity allocation is invalid because they spent $27 reserving the field with an app the city has made. Under this system, it appears that the reservation is supposed to temporarily trump the way the field normally operates.

What’s great about the video is that the chief negotiator of the neighborhood kids doesn’t quibble over whether the tech people actually have a permit. Instead, he challenges the legitimacy of the permit system altogether. He maintains that these permits don’t mean anything because the field always operates under a pick-up system and that the tech people are more than welcome to play within the pick-up system by rotating on and off the field like all the others.

So, the dispute actually becomes about the nature of property rights and what entitles someone to something. The tech people keep trying to pass around a piece of paper with ink on it that they say definitely shows they are the ones entitled to the field, while the leader of the neighborhood kids continues to explain that he doesn’t recognize pieces of papers with ink on them as conferring entitlement to the field.

Who is correct? Nobody is, of course. Who is entitled to the field and what process it must operate under is entirely made up and you can make it up however you want. In practice, if the tech guys wanted, they could probably mobilize the state’s aggressive violence against the neighborhood kids here (which is what property rights enforcement is, aggressive violence). That would resolve the conflict in practice, but it would not decide who is correct in a deeper, non-legal sense.

As to which of the two groups you should side with, I think the answer is obviously the neighborhood kids. Not only are they more sympathetic people in all of this, but the pick-up system that they are insisting upon is egalitarian and totally effective. The tech people’s proposed permit system operates so as to evict the neighborhood kids from the field on the basis of who has the most money. The neighborhood kids’ pick-up system operates so as to include everybody, including the tech people, to play against one another on an established rotating basis. An egalitarian system that is totally inclusive and facilitates people from all backgrounds playing simultaneously with one another: who can be mad at that?