August 2, 2016

Pokemon and private property

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney
Pikachu and his pals should remind us of the value of making more property private
Pikachu loves property rights and freedom of contract

A flood swamped a quiet Australian suburb recently: a deluge of Pokemon and their intrepid hunters. The neighborhood park had become known as a great spot to play Pokemon Go. Rare Pokemon liked to hang out there–especially at night. The park disintegrated into a trampled morass of humanity–players wandering about, shouting into the night when they found their newest quarry. A peaceful neighborhood found itself bombarded by litter, traffic, and noise.

Other areas have had similar, less extreme experiences. Residents have complained about wanderers bumping about in yards. Players have broken into private car parks in their craze for the hunt. People glued to their phones have tumbled off cliffs. Some have called for regulation to solve these problems. But I think Pokemon Go offers a bigger lesson–it should remind us that we’d be better off with more private property and less public property.

Pokemon Go works like this. On your device’s screen, you see a GPS map with your avatar situated in your present location. You have a display that gives you vague hints about where you might find pokemon nearby. And you wander about, looking at your phone until one appears on the map. Then you nab it. Landmarks called “Pokestops” on the map give you new items and offer good hunting grounds. There’s more: battles, upgrades, lucky eggs. The game is fun. My little boys and I wandered about a park one Saturday, and we made a few catches. When one of them saw a rabbit bounding away, he yelled, “Look, a Pokemon!”

But Pokemon Go’s treasure-hunt design has caused friction. Already, we see calls for regulation and trespass lawsuits against the game developer. But I think this is a nice case study on the value of more private property and less public property. If we kept more property private, we’d could resolve many of the trespass and nuisance issues that have cropped up while making plenty of space for players to have a good time.

A key trait of private property is the power to exclude. If the park in the Australian suburb was owned by the community or a company, the solution would’ve been simple: exclude players, limit access during certain hours, etc. Private ownership of sidewalks, roads, and other common areas would help property owners limit playing near the homes. And private ownership of common areas also facilitates the use of private security personnel that can prevent trespass.

But exclusion isn’t the whole story; private property and freedom of contract would would also facilitate Pokemon hunting. Many property owners have strong incentives to attract players to their properties. Businesses could contract with the game developer to put Pokestops near their restaurants and stores. In fact, Yelp already has a Pokestop filter that allows you to search for restaurants with a stop nearby. Businesses that have trouble attracting visitors could find the game to be a boon. Incentives would ensure that the power to exclude does not crush this new Poke-phenomenon.

Governments, of course, could impose regulations that also control this kind of activity. But the private solution is best. It takes a nuanced approach to settling people’s interests, reins in government power, and reduces political friction.

Private property works because we each know what we want better than the government. Some property owners will want to attract Pokemon Go players in order to draw more business. Others will want to exclude players to keep their neighborhood free of crowds and noise. Government lacks that sensitivity toward peoples’ subjective preferences. Private property allows fine-tuning of interests that government just can’t match.

When we look to private solutions, we also avoid empowering government. We might be tempted to extend government power to keep out Pokemon hunters and later find that same power wielded against us to crush our own cherished hobby or business. We should favor solutions that minimize government might.

And private property manages political friction. Instead of fighting for authorities to support a cause, individuals can decide through private property and contract how to deal with Pokemon and their hunters. With private property and freedom of contract, we need not wage a political war every time we need to solve the next pet problem.

Let’s empower people to find their own solutions to emerging issues through contract and private property. As for Pokemon Go players, property rights and freedom of contract are your friends in the hunt to catch’em all.

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