Say you’re driving in to Manhattan on a Sunday night from, I don’t know, western Massachusetts, and you find a parking spot right in front of your mother’s apartment on the downtown side of an Upper West Side crosstown street. Score. You’ve struck gold, and you are now one of the special people in the city with a Good Parking Space. You walk around with a kind of a jaunty swing to your step and a bit of a chip on your shoulder. When it’s late at night and you need to get something from your trunk, you can just pop right downstairs and do it, maybe even in your pajamas.
This lasts until Tuesday morning, when you wake up and realize that your whole day, until the early afternoon, will be taken up with the question of moving the car for the street cleaners. It’s got to not be parked there between 11:30 am and 1 pm.: should you double park, lurk in the neighborhood with an uneasy conscience, and then come back and repark it, and THEN go downtown to try to make your meeting? Should you sit in the car for an hour and a half? Should you maybe try to drive the car downtown? Do they even HAVE parking spaces down by the Seaport? Other than for helicopters?
It’s a whole big thing. But consider the alternative: unswept streets would be the least of it. If there were no alternate side of the street parking, once you got a space, you would never give it up. Never. It wouldn’t matter that, for example, vacation is over and you have to be getting back to western Massachusetts. You would just keep walking around the city like a different, special class of person. And you’d feel justified: you’d forget that you’d prayed for the parking space. “That’s the breaks,” you’d say to people who you met at parties who were looking for parking spaces of their own, maybe wanting to borrow yours. The barriers to entry would be impossible to surmount: new people, fresh-faced youths driving in from Connecticut, would drive back up 95 to New London beaten down by hours and hours and hours of slowly trolling the streets, made cynical by the hundreds of mirage spaces that turn out to be fire hydrants.
In the Old Testament, God has an interesting way of addressing the inequities that naturally crop up after a market has had a certain amount of time to chug along. Every fifty years, in the community established by the Torah, all debts were to be forgiven, all lands that had been sold were to revert to their former owners, slaves were to be freed. Essentially, contracts were dissolved in favor of the Covenant. It didn’t matter whether a man had gained his favorable position due to hard work and diligence or luck and inheritance. It didn’t matter whether someone had fallen into debt through laziness or shopping addiction or a horrible agricultural injury of some kind: either way, every fifty years the reset button was pushed in the Israelite economy.
It was a risky strategy on God’s part. I imagine that the World Bank would have had a couple of choice words to say to him. They’d have called him a populist, unrealistic, destructive of capital accumulation.
That’s not entirely the case. Jubilees don’t impair capital accumulation based on improved husbandry or new efficiencies within the bounds of a widely-distributed property ownership. Indeed, the relevant texts in Leviticus go on to address issues of justice within the context of such a lease-holding approach to land that one buys (as opposed to land that was part of the original land-grants to the tribes: in that case, tenure was secure, although it was understood that you still shouldn’t be a jerk about it because a) the rest of the tribes had similar properties, so there was no point in comparing yourself to others, and b) it was all a gift from God anyway.) The price paid for the land must be proportional to where in the Jubilee cycle you are when you make the contract. As God put it,
‘If you make a sale, moreover, to your friend or buy from your friend’s hand, you shall not wrong one another. Corresponding to the number of years after the jubilee, you shall buy from your friend; he is to sell to you according to the number of years of crops. In proportion to the extent of the years you shall increase its price, and in proportion to the fewness of the years you shall diminish its price, for it is a number of crops he is selling to you. So you shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God.
This does not promote an unrealistic approach to land tenure, it just addresses the economic inequities that are genuinely in the realm of the zero-sum game; above all, they encourage those who want to make a living based on others’ long-term debt or slavery to think twice.
They are radical, the Jubilees. But the health of the society as a whole, and the health of the souls of God’s people, apparently called for this kind of radicalism. We can see the good consequences– cleaner streets, no parking-based caste system– that result from Manhattan’s jubilee-esque parking laws. Can we imagine what the results would be if we incorporated at least some of this approach into our economy?
Photo from flickr by Bosc d’Anjou