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Can You Solve the Lawnmower Paradox?

In a free society, property rights and contract law work with each other, but in the lawnmower paradox, they work against each other.

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By Ryan Lau | @agorisms

In any society, there are two very important guidelines to follow: property rights and contract law. Without a state, these two principles reign supreme, but even with one, they are essential for society’s proper function. Both property rights and contract law protect communities against near-constant struggles for ownership and possession.

Property Rights and Contract Law

Property rights, of course, details that an individual has the supreme right to control what they are doing with their property, insofar as their usage does not intentionally and directly take away the rights of another to do the same. I, for example, have the right to use a saw and cut down a tree. I cannot, though, use the same saw, even though it is mine, to cut down a tree on bordering property.

Contract law, on the other hand, refers to the voluntary terms and conditions under which one individual may give, trade, or sell property to another. If someone else decides to give me their bordering property in exchange for my saw and a sum of money, I can then cut down that tree, even though it may be difficult without my saw. Perhaps, I could instead increase the sum of money that I am willing to give, and keep the saw. So long as it is voluntary, I can trade whatever I would like, on terms that both parties agree to.

Thus, it appears that both property rights and contract law have critical roles in upholding society’s stability. However, there are certain situations in which these two guidelines may play against each other. Enter, the lawnmower paradox.

The Lawnmower Paradox

After some unimportant time of use, I have decided that I would like to get a new lawnmower. In doing so, I realize that I do not still need my old lawnmower. Remembering that my neighbor was also looking for a new one, I decide that I will negotiate a contract with him for it.

Following some deliberation, we come to some terms. For a price of $50, I will give him the lawnmower, and he can use it whenever he wants. But since I am worried about someone wasting or misusing it, I include a clause that he cannot scrap, sell, donate, or trade it. In other words, he can use it himself, whenever he wants, but only he can use it.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Since I control what happens to the lawnmower, I technically am still the property owner. If the neighbor owned it, then he would have full permission to do with it what he wanted, provided he is not preventing anyone from doing the same. However, I have asserted my ownership over it by completely controlling what he can do with it. Technically, though he can use it anytime, it is still my lawnmower. So, rather than selling it, I have merely rented it to him for an indefinite period of time.

Despite this, though, the contract still reads that he may use the lawnmower any time that he wants to. Since the contract states that he can do so, and both parties have signed it, he can do just that.

The Dilemma Begins

A week goes by without issue, until all of a sudden, my new lawnmower breaks irreparably. The only lawnmower I still have is the one that I have indefinitely rented to my neighbor. However, both of us want to mow our lawn at the exact same point in time. Who has the right to cut their lawn first?

I am the rightful owner of the lawnmower, and I control how he can use it. On the other hand, though, the contract gave him permission to use it whenever he wants. So, my neighbor can use it whenever he wants, but I control when he uses it. Thus, the lawnmower paradox forms. Sound crazy yet?

Both property rights and contract law stake valid claims as to who may operate the lawnmower for personal use under unlimited circumstances. So, basically, the property rights and contract law sides of the issue contradict each other, with no clear winner. But if neither of us cedes the right to go first, neither of us can cut our lawns, and they will grow over with weeds. Who, then, should have to cede their right to cut their lawn first in this lawnmower paradox?

Greater Applications

Of course, the situation is highly improbable. Realistically, I could talk to my neighbor and agree to let him go first, or vice versa, to maintain the peace. Or, to plan even better, we could negotiate times that I would need to use it in advance, to avoid the dilemma entirely. But in higher stakes situations, there could be considerable conflict.

Imagine, for example, that rather than a lawnmower, I live next to my neighbor in Puerto Rico. After a hurricane, the entire island will lose power for months. However, there is only one generator, and my neighbor is currently using it under the same circumstances.

If the two cannot come to an agreement, neither of them will be able to prevent the food in their respective refrigerators from spoiling. Who has a right to use that generator? Is it the owner with property rights, or the indefinite recipient under contract law? Can you solve the lawnmower paradox? Let us know what you think in the comments below!


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  1. Interesting article, but unless there is something that I am missing, I also think that there is no paradox. The lawn mover has been sold, with only a clause preventing it from being resold. Way I see it, the initial seller has no right to use it anymore whatsoever.

    Reply

  2. This is why people hate attorneys.

    Reply

  3. There is no paradox. Your neighbour has paid for the right to use your lawnmower and unless the contract (or legislation) has a clause to cancel the contract he still has that right. Your residual right to control the way your neighbor can dispose of the lawnmower is irrelevant.

    It’s no different to having a tenant renting your second property. If your principal place of residence burns down and you need somewhere to live you cannot simply boot the tenant out with no notice. You need to wait for the lease to expire or negotiate with the tenant before you can regain possession of your second house from the tenant.

    This is a stupid paradox because it isn’t a paradox at all. It is clear cut.

    Reply

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