This morning, Sen. Corey Brown and administration officials presented their attempt at a compromise bill governing public access to bodies of water lying on top of private lands. The subject of months of negotiations, the legislation made large lakes public, while letting landowners close off access to lakes smaller than 40 acres.
Brown said he sought “an answer that maybe didn’t satisfy everyone but hit closer to the 80 percent of the folks in the middle.”
He drew a fierce response from a number of landowners.
"This bill is a direct assault on my fundamental property rights," said Reuben Parks, of Webster.
Another Webster resident, Mike Dale, agreed.
"To me it seems like the landowner gets to store all this public trust water with no compensation," Dale said.
The specific language here sheds some light on why months of negotiations failed to resolve the issue. Parks, and plenty of others, referred over and over again to private property “rights.”
A “right” is something absolute that people can’t negotiate over. Contrast it with an “interest” — that’s something you can compromise on. So as long as both sides think of access to this water as a question of rights (and many sportsmen believe in a public “right” to access water), any sort of deal is hard to get.
This is rooted in psychology. Over the past two decades, researchers looking at the psychology of morality have identified a special category of values called “sacred values” — “moral imperatives we’re unwilling to compromise on,” per the New York Times:
Faced with mundane choices, people will readily alter their behavior in response to money. You can pay someone to clean your house or defend you in a murder trial. But with issues like gun control or abortion, a fundamentally different calculus seems to be at work. Economic trade-offs — like lifting an embargo in exchange for concessions — suddenly become unacceptable. As Professor (Philip) Tetlock (now also at the University of Pennsylvania) has observed, even to suggest such a trade-off is to invite moral outrage, along with feelings of contamination and a need for moral cleansing.
For example, most people don’t think twice about spending money for a house. But, writes psychologist Stephen Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”:
If someone offered to purchase your child… you would not ask how much he was offering but would be offended at the very idea.
Some research has suggested that the way an issue is framed determines whether people think of it as a sacred value, or a more mundane question of competing interests.
One (slightly dated) example:
When Professor Tetlock and a colleague asked people about President Bill Clinton’s practice of rewarding big campaign donors with a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, they got varying reactions depending on how the question was phrased. If they presented it as an economic transaction — pay $250,000 or more and get a night in the White House — even Clinton supporters were indignant. But when the practice was painted as the kind of thing you’d do for a friend, much less outrage ensued.
Another study looked at the poster child for intractable issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Various Israeli and Palestinian subjects were divided into groups and presented various peace scenarios. One proposal was a compromise: Israel withdraws from most but not all of the West Bank, but doesn’t allow Palestinians to return to lands they or their ancestors vacated in the 1940s. Pinker:
Not surprisingly, the proposal did not go over well. The absolutists on both sides reacted with anger and disgust and said they would, if necessary, resort to violence to oppose the deal.
Another group were given the same deal, but with a sweetener: the United States and European Union would give a large cash compensation to each side. For moderates, who saw themselves looking out for their peoples’ interests rather than inviolable rights, this made them much more likely to support the deal. “But the absolutists, forced to contemplate a taboo tradeoff, were even more disgusted, angry, and prepared to resort to violence,” Pinker writes.
But the third group was given a different kind of concession. Instead of a cash payment or other incentive, the Israelis and Palestinians were told that the other side would make make a symbolic concession of one of its own sacred values. Israelis were told that Palestinians would either give up their “right of return” or formally recognize the “historic and legitimate right of the Jewish people to (the land of Israel).” Palestinians were told the Israelis would “apologize for all of the wrongs done to the Palestinian people” or “symbolically recognize the historic legitimacy of the right of return (while not actually granting it).” Pinker:
The verbiage made a difference. Unlike the bribes of money or peace, the symbolic concession of a sacred value by the enemy, especially when it acknowledges a sacred value on one’s own side, reduced the absolutists’ anger, disgust, and willingness to endorse violence.
Access of hunters and anglers to lakes in northeastern South Dakota is obviously a much less intense issue than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I would argue, based on the comments made this morning, that much the same psychological pathways are at work.