Debate Tip of the Week: Always Think “Compared to What?”

People are constantly making choices. We’re blessed with the ability to analyze and employ reason to make those choices. Indeed, the fundamental axiom of economics is that people make choices. From there all basic economic principles are derived.

A choice implies multiple options and therefore multiple possible realities. When we are faced with a choice we ought to examine those realities against each other to find the best choice.

The problem is that people often don’t do that. They insert imagined realities to contrast against possible ones and thus distort their decision making. My favorite example of this is from an article a few years ago called “Unicorn Governance” where author Michael Munger talks about how people conceive of a government that is able to function in a more just and efficient way than governments are actually able to function in real life in order to support expanding government power. He writes, “people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world”.

I highly encourage all of you to read this article and think about the implications of what he’s saying. Whenever we’re faced with a choice we need to be able to accurately portray what the options actually entail before we can analyze the decision rationally.

The application of this knowledge to policy debate is clear: don’t fall into the trap of allowing the affirmative team to assume solvency. Can their plan be accomplished with the way the government actually functions? The affirmative team can fiat that the legislature will pass the policy and that the executive will attempt to enforce it, but I’d argue that they can’t fiat further than that.

On the opposite side, don’t let the negative team present a false dichotomy: in the absence of a counterplan the alternative to the plan is the status quo, not some imagined better idea they won’t commit to.

For the value debater you must also look at the reality of what kinds of incentives exist within the government. Can a particular application of a value be worth supporting if it can’t actually be implemented? More specifically: does ‘ought’ imply ‘can’? I think most people would say yes to that question. Consider using this form of analysis to help your prep.

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