I’ve just returned from lecturing at a workshop for home-schooled debaters in Santa Clara. While there, I began thinking about a convention of debate that usually improves the quality of debate, but under some circumstances rules out some perfectly valid argumentation.
In policy debates, the affirmative team is granted the power of fiat (Latin for “let it be”), which means they can assume for purposes of the debate round that the policy they advocate will be passed into law. This prevents the negative team from making arguments such as, “You may be right, but this law would never be passed because the vast majority of people think you’re wrong,” or “This policy would never be passed because Senator So-and-So, chair of the Such-and-Such committee, would never let this bill reach the floor of Congress.” In general, fiat makes for a better debate because it forces the negative team to focus on substantive critiques – i.e., showing why this policy is a bad idea in itself, independent of whether the public or any given politician thinks it’s a bad idea.
Unfortunately, fiat also rules out public choice argumentation. To oppose government action, you needn’t believe there is no conceivable policy that would improve upon market outcomes. All you have to believe is that lawmakers lack the correct incentives and/or information to adopt and implement a good policy. Public choice theory and observable reality both amply demonstrate the poor incentives at work in the public sphere. Yet fiat bars that kind of argument.
As a result, some teams will fund their plans by “reducing waste and corruption,” or by naming some specific pork-barrel programs they would eliminate. Those are nice thoughts, but the incentives inherent in (our form of) democratic government lead inexorably to waste, corruption, and pork-barrel programs. To fiat them away is to assume away an unavoidable feature of the political process. In reality, almost any new program will be funded through more borrowing, more taxation, or more inflation.
Fortunately, fiat does (I believe) allow room for the branch of public choice economics that applies to bureaucratic choice. A negative team could argue that fiat allows the affirmative team to assume their plan’s passage by the legislature, but not its correct and influence-free implementation by an agency of the executive branch. I’m pretty sure the concept of regulatory capture would fly in a policy debate round.
A few months ago, I learned that high school and college debaters had begun using a form of argument called a “kritique,” in which the negative team challenges the language of the affirmative team’s case or its right to decide the topic of the debate. (I’m told the German spelling is attributable to Wittgenstein or some of other philosopher credited with this kind of position.) For example, a team might argue – paradoxically – that a case to legalize drugs is bad because it privileges the notion that government action (or inaction) is more important than private action in dealing with drug-related problems. Or they might argue that the affirmative’s use of the word “he” to refer to a person of indeterminate gender makes the affirmative’s position inherently sexist. That is exactly the kind of twisted, deconstructionist reasoning I think ruins the art of debate. However, given my above point about fiat and public choice, perhaps there is room in debate for “kritiques” of debate conventions when they obscure factors highly relevant to real policy decisions. I’m not sure, however, if a principled line separates this “kritique” (yes, I will continue to use the scare quotes) from the bogus ones. Maybe there are some valid arguments that just don’t belong in debate rounds.