Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Both formal and informal rules structure our social life, and often the latter matter more than the former for dictating human action

I've been more effusive on facebook than on the blog about it, but recently I became a homeowner, and it's been very exciting for me. Of course one of the things you get when you got through this process is a survey of your property. I saw this a couple weeks ago, and given the way human memory inevitably is, I have a better sense of who owns what in my immediate vicinty than any of my neighbors.

There's a strip of land to our left that is definitely not my property. It has a cluster of trees on it with a bunch of poison ivy growing on them that I don't want there but also don't want to deal with, and a largish branch just fell in the last storm. I haven't mowed this strip, because as I say it's not mine (and not wanting to deal with it contributes as well).

Well we've gone through a couple mows and the length of the grass on this strip relative to my yard and the neighbor's yard is quite distinct now... it's clear the neighbor is under the impression it's not his strip either.

So what to do?

Well as soon as I finish this post I'm going to go out and mow it and start cleaning up the grove of trees. My first reaction was "well that's passive aggressive of him to mow his whole property except that one strip!", but I immediately thought better of it. He probably thought the same thing of me, which is why the grass on this little strip got so long. One doesn't just not mow a particular strip of land in an attempt to pass it off to a new naive neighbor. He's not trying to pass of a responsibility on me, and I'm not trying to pass one off on him. That's not why he didn't mow it. He didn't mow it because year after year the guy that lived in my house always took care of it (he didn't take care of it well, considering the condition of the trees - but he mowed it). We just have different understandings of rights and responsibilities here. I have my property lines, I know it's not mine in a formal sense - and that matters in the real estate transaction. But in the social transaction on our street I'm pretty clearly obligated to take care of this, and I'm going to take care of this because the eyesore of an unkept strip and the awkward state that currently exists between me and my neighbor is way more costly than me mowing a few more feet every week or so.

If I thought he was trying to get me to do his work for him, that would be one thing. But that's not what's going on here. What's going on here is that a new member of this society (me) is working out incongruities between formal and informal rules, and because I'm the new guy it's incumbent upon me to adjust to the equilibrium if I'm interested in an equilibrium (which I am).


  1. You should see strangers get upset over the informal double parking rules here in Brooklyn. One guy had honked his horn outside my apartment for about ten minutes straight because he was blocked in. I finally came out and told him, "Dude, you just have to wait until 10:30 when alternate-side-of-the-street parking is over, and these people will show up to move their cars."

    "Yeah, you think so? Well, I'm calling the police and we'll see about that."

    I had to laugh. I asked him, "Look around you? See that people are double-parked all up and down every street we can see? Do you really think this is happening and the police are unaware of it?"

  2. It's interesting that until recently your experience would be very different in England. In England until quite recently adverse possession laws would make things work differently there.

    If the previous neighbour who maintained the land had done so for 12 years then he could have become possessor of it filing a claim with the land registry office, the previous owners claim would then be voided. My uncle did this for some land surrounding my grandmother's house.

    Modern adverse possession in England is a little different. The squatter must file his paperwork after 10 years, at which time the owner will be informed and can respond. If the owner doesn't respond in the next two years then the squatter can become the legal owner as before.

    Part of the motivation for these slightly complex laws was to ensure that pieces of land are maintained.


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