Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Schunk on Fiat, Pseudo-Inherency, Circumvention, and Process DAs

I’ve long believed that students can learn a lot by exploring “old” debate scholarship. But with a few notable exceptions (like Solt’s “The Disposition of Counterplans and Permutations”), most students have little exposure to the ideas that circulated in earlier eras of debate. To help students “connect the dots” between older debate scholarship and contemporary controversies and arguments, I will occasionally dig into my archive of articles to highlight ones that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating.

The first article I’ve selected — John Schunk’s “Affirmative Fiat, Plan Circumvention, and the ‘Process’ Disadvantage: The Further Ramifications of Pseudo-Inherency,” published in 1981 — explains a theory of fiat that is still relevant to today’s controversies about plan texts, circumvention arguments, and process DAs and counterplans. Distinguishing between “legitimate” inherency and what he calls “pseudo-inherency,” Schunk argues that most circumvention arguments (as they continue to be argued today) misunderstand the meaning of “should” in a policy proposition.

Schunk’s concept of “pseudo-inherency” is one of many scholarly positions that fiercely debated the meaning of inherency. For most of policy debate’s history, inherency was one of the most controversial theoretical concepts. Now, it has become almost entirely absent from debate theory and practice.

But even without delving into the complicated (and often-confusing) historical context of inherency, Schunk’s article lays out a theoretical foundation for the concept of fiat that current debaters can use to improve their circumvention arguments (and especially their responses to them). Schunk’s explanation of legitimate inherency arguments — negative arguments that there are nontopical ways to solve the affirmative’s advantages — might also spark ideas for how debaters could develop other types of negative plan attacks beyond narrow, “roll-back”-style circumvention arguments.

The full text of Schunk’s article is below.

Schunk, John R. “Affirmative Fiat, Plan Circumvention, and the ‘Process’ Disadvantage: The Further Ramifications of Pseudo-Inherency.” Speaker and Gavel, Volume 18, Number 3, 1981, pp. 83-87.

At a time when it is important to make intercollegiate debate as relevant as possible to real-world situations and the skills necessary to cope with them, it is disturbing that a misunderstanding persists in the debate community over what is probably the most confusing concept in policy proposition analysis—inherency. In a previous article, the term “pseudo-inherency” was introduced to describe this pervasive misanalysis of the nature of inherency.1

The purpose of this article is to explore some further ramifications of pseudo-inherency in two areas of plan attacks—circumvention and disadvantages—where questions which should be irrelevant to policy propositions often have been accepted as legitimate by both affirmatives and negatives alike. Let it be clear at the outset that this author does not fault negative teams only for raising these misguided plan attacks. Affirmative teams are also responsible for legitimizing such arguments when the affirmative case sets up the pseudo-inherency positions.

However, before these two plan attack areas are examined, it is necessary to review the nature of the pseudo-inherency misunderstanding. The legitimate stock issue of inherency is best expressed by the following question: “Is any policy short of the one proposed inherently incapable of mitigating the alleged problems?”2 Pseudo-inherency, on the other hand, entails a different question: “Can the alleged problems be solved (or advantages be attained) without making a structural change in the status quo?” While inherency issues should concern whether there are nontopical ways to obtain the desired benefit, pseudo-inherency erroneously asks whether the status quo has the ability to take the action outlined in the affirmative plan.

In order to understand the irrelevance of this latter question, it must be assumed that the topicality of a particular affirmative plan has been granted or established. (In fact, if the plan is not topical, there is no reason to resolve any of the other issues in a particular debate.) A negative team, then, fails to uphold its responsibility of negating the proposition when it argues the capability of the status quo to adopt the affirmative plan, for the topical action still must be taken in order to solve the alleged problems.

At this point, an application of the pseudo-inherency concept to an example of attitudinal inherency should be illuminating. Consider the 1979-80 [end page 83] intercollegiate topic, “Resolved that the federal government should significantly strengthen the regulation of mass media communication in the United States.” A legitimate affirmative inherency position for a plan through which the federal government would impose limits on television violence might be stated in the following way. Attitudes in the broadcasting industry preclude a voluntary reduction of T.V. violence which is re quired to attain the affirmative advantages, and thus governmental restraint is required for solvency. The negative legitimately could defend inherency by defending such measures as self-regulation, the effectiveness of parent/teacher pressure groups on the broadcasting industry, the responsiveness of the NAB code, and so on—all of which would be without strengthened government regulation (without the topic). These are all legitimate negative inherency positions since only actions short of the resolution (which specifies the federal government as the agent of change) are argued as ways to achieve the same benefits as those alleged for the affirmative’s resolutional action.

On the other hand, an example of attitudinal pseudo-inherency might sound like this: instead of asking why alleged problems cannot be solved without the proposition, the negative asks why the proposition has not yet been adopted. Apparently, federal policymakers have not been motivated sufficiently to adopt the affirmative plan, but the negative who argues that these attitudes against adoption are not inherent is guilty of the pseudo-inherency fallacy. When a negative argues that status quo policymakers in the federal government have no perverse motive in not requiring a reduction in T.V. violence, this merely means that the status quo can, and perhaps will, adopt the topic; this is not a reason why the topic should not be adopted (why the federal government should not significantly strengthen the regulation of mass media communication). The only inherency position relevant to negating the proposition (why the proposition should not be adopted) is the capability of the status quo to obtain the desired effect without taking a topical action.

Often, it is not the negative who is guilty of introducing pseudo-inherency into the debate. The affirmative may confuse true inherency with pseudo-inherency and may argue reasons why the affirmative plan has not been adopted (e.g.. Congress has been reluctant to act because of First Amendment considerations of freedom of expression, or the FCC has been co-opted by the industry it is charged with regulating). Why a significant strengthening of the regulation of mass media by the federal government (legislative, executive, or judicial branch)3 has not taken place would be germane only to a proposition of fact—predicting that the federal government will or will not take such action—but not to a proposition of policy. There is no rationale for an affirmative arguing that a topical action will not be taken in order to demonstrate that the action should be taken.

With this review of the nature of pseudo-inherency in mind, the remainder of this article will examine two sets of plan attack issues which are grounded in the pseudo-inherency fallacy. The first of these consists of a set of solvency-circumvention arguments. The analysis typically runs something like this: if, as the affirmative case argues, policymakers do not currently want the affirmative policy, then they will find ways to see that the affirmative plan is not put into effect. As a result, affirmatives have [end page 84] responded with the magical power of fiat which mandates policy action to override these currently opposing attitudes.

Such an affirmative position distorts the concept of fiat, and unnecessarily so, since illegitimate inherency arguments are responsible for its inception. Affirmative fiat should be another way of saying that the affirmative team’s obligation is not to prove that the plan will be adopted, but only that it should be adopted. It does not mean that the affirmative debaters are themselves adopting the plan, or that the judge adopts the plan when he or she votes affirmative. On the contrary, if this plan ever really were adopted, it could be done so only by those persons in the position of authority to do so: Congress, executive boards and agencies, and/or the federal courts.

Thus, an affirmative plan never would be passed as legislation unless and until a majority in Congress was persuaded to vote for it, even though a minority of attitudes in this branch of the federal government might remain opposed. The argument that Congressional opposition would result in repeal or some other way to circumvent (once the affirmative fiats the plan over current Congressional attitudes) is based on an erroneous notion of the meaning of “should.” By the same token, an executive agency would take action only after being convinced to do so (by statutory requirement or otherwise); opposing attitudes would have been sufficiently minimized so that they no longer prevented enactment of the affirmative plan. Clearly, nothing in the “real world” supports the distorted notion of fiat as a divine intervention which forces adoption of a policy that the majority (or those with the authority to adopt) do not want to adopt.

Another example from a recent intercollegiate topic may prove helpful here. Consider the affirmative plan in which the federal government mandates a nationwide mass media campaign to inform the public about the dangers of a particular product or behavior. Legitimate inherency issues center on ways to achieve the benefits alleged for this action without the federal government’s strengthening the regulation of mass media communication to achieve those benefits. Pseudo-inherency raises questions about why the federal government has not taken this action in the past. Any of a number of motives for inaction by Congress or by executive departments and agencies (DOE, FCC) may be claimed by the affirmative and denied by the negative. When the affirmative claims such reasons, it paves the wa for negatives to argue that the motives for non-adoption in the past will continue once the affirmative plan is adopted, and this will lead to circumvention.

Thus, negatives might argue any of a number of circumvention plan attacks: 1) Congress will repeal the affirmative plan after its adoption is mandated by the affirmative team; 2) Congress will refuse to fund the affirmative plan adequately; 3) DOE and FCC will refuse to enforce the affirmative plan effectively; 4) If the plan is appointed by the President, with Congressional approval, the affirmative plan’s independent board will be biased not to enforce the plan effectively because of the currently opposing attitudes in the legislative and executive branches; or 5) The Supreme Court will strike down the affirmative plan. (It is very strange that nearly everyone finds this latter argument illegitimate because Constitutionality is a waived issue in policy debate. The affirmative can merely say that all necessary actions should be taken, including Constitutional amendment if necessary; at the same time, many will not accept the same thing for the other two branches of the federal government.)

With a proper understanding of fiat, however, affirmatives can soundly [end page 85] respond that 1) Congress should not repeal; 2) Congress should fund; 3) DOE and FCC should enforce; and 4) the President and Congress should not select board members opposed to carrying out the plan. Whether these actions, all of which are undertaken by the federal government (the agent of change specified in the proposition), will ever occur is irrelevant to whether they ought to occur. On the other hand, fiat realistically cannot mean that the affirmative team insures that the proposition will be enacted by claiming their plan incapable of repeal, by the affirmative team’s appointment of board members, or by the appointment of the affirmative team to the plan administration board. Yet these affirmative tactics, and others, have occurred because of theoretically unsound circumvention attacks.

This is not to say that there are not legitimate circumvention attacks when relevant inherency issues are identified. Media resistance to federal government mandates, for example, would be quite relevant, since the proposition wording only allows the affirmative to advocate what the federal government, and not the mass media, should do. If the negative demonstrates that federal government enforcement mechanisms will fail to induce mass media compliance, then opposing attitudes outside the federal government may indeed thwart plan solvency. However, opposing attitudes within the federal government no longer would be at issue since the wording of the proposition authorizes the affirmative to advocate desirable attitudes, regardless of whether the attitudes ever exist.

Neither is this to suggest that circumvention attacks grounded in pseudo-inherency cannot be relevant in determining the decision of a specific debate, particularly when both the affirmative and the negative accept the legitimacy of pseudo-inherency as an issue relevant to policy propositions. However, this article does argue that an increased awareness in the debate community can and should render such “non-real world” circumvention attacks and distortions of affirmative fiat to the same status of irrelevancy as the issue of Constitutionality.

The examples cited here deal only with propositions calling for action by the federal government. However, the clear majority of recent intercollegiate resolutions has specified the federal government as the agent of change. Moreover, when an agent of change is not specified, the topic is all the more vulnerable to pseudo-inherency positions, since the negative does not negate the resolution when it notes the capability of any agent to take the action specified in the resolution.

A second, more recent set of plan attacks rooted in the problem of pseudo-inherency appears to be increasingly in vogue. These arguments usually have been presented under the label of “process” disadvantage. They typically have been argued when the affirmative distorts the meaning of fiat in ways already suggested (e.g., claiming the plan as unrepealable, placing the affirmative team on the board, etc.) in order to deal with circumvention attacks apparently legitimized by pseudo-inherency. The negative, then, grants the affirmative distortion of the fiat power and argues various possible disadvantages of this new “process” of policy adoption and implementation.

Consider the following examples:

1) The negative argues that the affirmative plan is undemocratic because it is forced in over the majority opinions of the Congress and presumably the electorate which it represents. No affirmative who understands inherency, however, ought to place himself in the position of claiming that the affirmative team is mandating policy in order to overcome prevailing attitudes. [end page 86] A decision for the affirmative team does not mean that either the affirmative or the judge adopts the plan; it merely means that the judge has concurred with the affirmative that this plan should be adopted by the federal government. This would only occur, however, when the attitudes of the necessary decision-makers were similarly influenced.

2) The negative argues that the affirmative team lacks the expertise to dictate board members or to actually be members of the board. Of course, no affirmative should find it necessary to serve on the board or to identify receptive individuals to be appointed to the board in order to insure proper attitudes for plan administration and enforcement. The actions advocated by the affirmative are what should be done by whomever the personnel might be.

3) The negative argues that an unrepealable affirmative plan is dangerously inflexible. This is, of course, true, but there is no reason for an affirmative to view its plan as unrepealable in order to avoid circumvention arguments which misunderstand affirmative fiat.

4) The negative argues that the affirmative board is open to tyrannical abuses, for it is granted all-encompassing authority, powers to finance, self-perpetuating status, with inadequate checks upon it. Again, affirmatives who create omnipotent boards have done so unnecessarily. They have attempted to insure that the federal government will do something; the wording of a policy proposition merely requires that affirmatives advocate that something should be done.

For these and many other process disadvantages, a judge may find himself or herself in a position in which the negative arguments must be granted as relevant, since the affirmative has opened itself up to them by unnecessarily distorting the meaning of affirmative fiat. It would be far better, however, if we never heard such arguments at all. That will occur only with the realization that affirmatives are not required to “force in” changes which defy the prevailing attitudes of the change agent specified in the proposition. (Carried to its logical extreme, one can envision affirmatives magically fiating peace, goodwill, and mutual understanding as the solution to all the world’s ills.)

In short, that a proposition has not been adopted in the past is not relevant to inherency analysis; why non-topical actions have not and could not get the affirmative advantages or solve the affirmative harms is relevant. With that realization, unrealistic plan circumvention and “process” disadvantage arguments should become extinct. To the degree that competitive debate can weed out the theoretically irrelevant, the activity, and the climate for the activity, will become healthier.

Unfortunately, like all policy advocacy, this article is an illustration of its own thesis. What the awareness in the debate community should be has been recommended; whether it ever will be or not is quite another question, one over which the author of this paper has no magical power of fiat.

John F. Schunk is an Associate Professor of Speech Communication and Director of Forensics at Wichita State University.


1. John F. Schunk, “A Farewell to ‘Structural Change’: The Cure for Pseudo-Inherency.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, 14 (Winter 1978), pp.144-49.

2. Douglas Ehninger and Wayne Brockriede, Decision by Debate (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1963), p. 225.

3. For a discussion of the reasons “federal government” is not restricted to the legislative branch, see Schunk, pp. 145-46.