Monday, August 04, 2003

Seattle Debrief

Officially, Andrew and I won the debate in Seattle on Friday. Of course, it was an engineered 2-to-1 vote, as one judge on the panel was chosen to be biased in our favor, and another was chosen to be biased in the other side’s favor. So in truth, our victory represented the opinion of exactly one judge. Still, the audience seemed favorably disposed to our position, and we were relatively pleased with our performance.

Because of the very short speaking times -- each speaker had one 5-minute and one 3-minute speech -- none of us, on either side, were able to make all the points we intended to. In this kind of abbreviated format, coverage and depth take a back seat, and what really matters is the sound bite: who really sounds like they’re on the right side of the issue?

Ultimately, I think what swayed the swing member of the judging panel, and I think many audience members as well, was an argument that Andrew and I had thought would be a throw-away filler argument. The subject of the debate was a recently passed Seattle law that granted two big corporations a monopoly on construction waste hauling. Our substantive arguments against the law had to do with the evils of legal monopolies: they drive up prices, harm consumers, reduce the level of service, and put competitors out of business. We also had prepared responses to likely arguments of the other side (alleged benefits in terms of safety and health, for the most part). But we also had another argument in our pockets: that the law in question was corporate welfare, a sweetheart deal pushed by two giant businesses and their cronies in the public utility commission.

Theoretically, that argument shouldn’t have mattered to the debate, because the origin of a law is irrelevant to its desirability. Just because the law was passed for bad reasons doesn’t mean good reasons don’t exist. Nonetheless, the audience’s reaction to the corporate welfare argument was palpable. The look on their faces (well, some of them, anyway) said, “Ohhhh, now I get it.”

The lesson, I think, is that most people assume that laws exist for good reasons. If there weren’t a problem, why would the law have been passed? In response to that question, it’s not enough to just argue that the law is ineffective or counterproductive; you need to explain why such a law would ever have existed in the first place if it were really so bad.

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