On the Enforcement of Private Customs

Any economist with an understanding of institutions (the “rules of the game”) will tell you that a rule, even a public law, doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t enforced. So a big question concerns what it means to be a rule — are informal norms and customs legitimate?

I was thinking about this as I got this piece of news from my old stomping grounds:

Longtime Pittsburghers know the unwritten code of saving parking spaces with a chair, and the tradition is in full effect after a storm dumped 20 inches of snow on the city last weekend.

Neighborhood justice can be swift — like in Squirrel Hill, where someone cleared a spot on Hobart Street and left a chair, but the chair was later moved and another car parked there. That car somehow became buried in snow, and a sign left at the scene said, “Now yinz know not to break the rules.”

Here’s the story.

I disagree with the story on one front: you don’t have to be a longtime “yinzer” (a.k.a., a person with Pittsburgh roots) to know about the consequences of violating “the chair” rule. After my first few months there, I realized that people kept chairs specifically for the purpose of blocking off parking spaces.

Well, now yinz know.