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The State Conquers the Parking Lot

August 26, 2005

The fifteenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (PL 101-336), signed into law by President Bush I on July 26, 1990, has come and gone. This law, in the words of Lew Rockwell, "has somehow managed to brand every disabled person as a pariah, made them more expensive to hire, and caused the truly disabled to experience even more discrimination relative to the less disabled. The law itself has mandated vast amounts of physical configurations of every building to public access with nary a thought to the relationship between cost and benefit." But even before this law was passed, there was a visible reminder of government intervention in society on behalf of the disabled that remains very apparent to this day: handicapped parking.

It happens all the time. You see what appears to be an empty parking space on the other side of the parking lot. But when you drive over there you are not able to park. Not because someone has already taken the space — the space may have been vacant all day — but because it is a handicapped parking space. Fines for parking in these spaces can exceed $150 in some areas.

I have observed three things about handicapped parking:

  • Many of the people using them don't seem handicapped at all.
  • Many of the spaces go unused for hours at a time.
  • The stores with the most handicapped parking spaces have the fewest handicapped patrons.

Now, I am not against the idea of special parking for the handicapped. However, I am against the various laws passed by state governments which mandate that a store have x-number of handicapped parking spaces. There is a difference. Opponents of liberty and the free market would have everyone believe that without government intervention there would be few or no parking spaces reserved for the handicapped.

But like the ideas that people would go hungry without food stamps or children would be malnourished without the federal school lunch program, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no reason to believe that handicapped parking would disappear if left up to the free market. In fact, a proliferation of special parking spaces could occur if businesses were allowed to manage their own parking.

Businesses that wanted to cater to the handicapped would certainly not remove any of their handicapped parking spaces. To the contrary, they might even add more of these spaces. Businesses that don't see many handicapped patrons (like Home Depot, which has the largest number of handicapped parking spaces of any store in the city where I live [Pensacola, FL]) might cut back the number of their handicapped parking spaces to a reasonable number.

But suppose a business owner "hates" the handicapped? Suppose he removes every last handicapped parking space from his parking lot? Well, first of all, he will probably lose business, and not just from the handicapped. Although a person in a wheelchair might still patronize this business if the prices are cheaper or the selection is better, I think it is safe to say that the handicapped will do business elsewhere. People with handicapped family members, advocates for the disabled, or individuals who are concerned about those with disabilities might also choose to boycott that particular business.

The business owner who "hates" the handicapped then has two options. He can bite his tongue, grit his teeth, or denounce the handicapped under his breath while he restores all the handicapped parking spaces he removed in order to regain his lost business. His other option is to forgo the business of handicapped individuals while he enjoys the satisfaction of not seeing handicapped people frequent his place of business.

The free market is a wonderful thing. Without government handicapping the market, business owners are free to cater to a diverse clientele, a select clientele, or somewhere in between. Businesses might want to provide special parking for seniors, pregnant women, ministers, policemen, mothers with small children, or those having a birthday that day. One possible parking option might be paying a fee to park close to a store. This fee is something that someone in a hurry might gladly pay.

The options are endless, but only if parking, and all seemingly mundane activities, are left to the free market instead of the government.

Handicapped parking, like flag burning, free speech, and discrimination, is a private property issue.

Let's analyze two current practices.

First, the federal and state governments pass handicapped parking laws, and the local agencies enforce them by proxy. No matter how private you believe your property is — a small law firm, a dance studio, a picture frame shop — some of your property, the most desirable part of your property, must be reserved by order of government decree.

There is a strong symbolizing here, not unlike that associated with a conquering army and its flag. The handicapped parking sign serves as a constant reminder that the state is supreme and may take the first proceeds of anything you do.

Second, on the question of whether private business will reserve spots: many local grocery stories reserve their prime parking real estate for expectant mothers, complete with charming signs decorated in blue and pink. There is nothing official about it. Nor is it enforced. You don't get a ticket if you park there. No one is arrested if they are not used for the right purposes.

Still, no one not expecting would dare park there. The gesture of placing this sign there not only fails to annoy; it pleases people to think that the store management is thinking of others.

So there we have it: two signs, two enforcement agencies, two effects, one voluntary and one coercive. Which is the better model for society?

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 The state as thief: $15

Laurence M. Vance is a freelance writer and an adjunct instructor in accounting and economics at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, FL. See his Mises.org archiveVancepub@juno.com. Comment on the Blog.


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