Why Bastiat Can’t Find a Parking Space

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From our American correspondent, Esteban:

One of Frederic Bastiat’s most famous observations was the importance of recognizing “That which is seen and that which is not seen”. A government agency builds a road, some people get jobs working on the road, voila, look at all the benefits the government has brought us. What is unseen is what would have happened if the government hadn’t taken our resources to build the road, perhaps we would have spent them on something of greater value?

That people often (perhaps usually) overlook the unseen isn’t too surprising, but the inability to see is sometimes striking. A couple of years ago the City of Atlanta decided to get rid of its parking meter enforcement staff and outsource this work to a private sector company (let’s call it NewCo). Some time after the transition there were discussions at the City Council that perhaps they should reverse this decision, or at least find another provider.

What was the source of these complaints? Was NewCo inefficient? Was the City getting less revenue from the meters? No, meter revenues were actually up as were parking ticket revenues. Some misbehavior by NewCo’s employees, bribery, favoritism, kickbacks? No, no, no and no. The problem was that NewCo was doing a better job. Seriously, the City Council was inundated with complaints such as “I was, like, 2 minutes late getting back to my car and they had already ticketed me”. People who had been ticketed as well as many businesses complained about NewCo’s efficiency.

One wonders what was expected of NewCo’s employees – remember the old Westerns where coming upon a fire the hero would feel the ashes to see if they were still warm? Hmm, this meter says expired, but I can sense it flipped 45 seconds ago, let’s give this a few minutes grace period. Were they supposed to stand around for X minutes before writing the ticket (and whatever X is, it won’t be long enough to satisfy everybody). And if they did that, rest assured that tales of NewCo employees just standing around not working would abound.

Now, some of the griping is understandable, people rarely want to accept their medicine. Also, some of it was probably misdirection – former employees who want their job back, other City employees who fear that if this is deemed a success their department could be next, those who dislike privatizing any government service. But, take at face value what people were arguing for, and what the Council seemed to support, is the idea that the time limits on parking meters should be enforced, but not very well. Please note, these were not arguments that the meters are too expensive or don’t permit you to choose enough time. Simply: “I used to get away with it, and now I don’t”.

What really stood out is that no one involved in these discussions – aggrieved parkers or Council members – seemed to think about why we have meters, time limits and tickets. If enforcement is lax, more people overstay their allotted time, one consequence of which is that you have to drive around longer to find a parking space. People notice their parking ticket or the inconvenience of having to run out and feed the meter (that which is seen) but were oblivious to the shortage of parking spaces that is exacerbated by lax enforcement (that which is not seen, or perhaps not identified as connected?).

One wonders how people who live in a City where finding a parking spot is very difficult could “not see” the value of good enforcement. The time spent circling the block, rushing to turn around and grab the space that just opened up before somebody else snagged it, then just missing out and starting the dance over – nobody thought of that? Bueller, anyone?

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The council members will probably solve the problem by giving themselves special placards allowing them to park without putting change in the meter. Then they’ll love the more rigorous enforcement for those who do have to pay.