Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Solt on Types of Counterplans and Constraints on Negative Fiat

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

In 1989, Roger Solt identified twelve types of counterplans that were relatively popular during that era of policy debate. Solt’s categories are:

  1. Foreign/international counterplans
  2. International organization (of which the U.S. is a member) counterplans
  3. Private (self-interested) institution counterplans
  4. Private (public-interested) institution counterplans
  5. Fundamental change to basic form of government counterplans
  6. Radical topic-related reforms counterplans
  7. Sub-federal level of U.S. government counterplans
  8. Process counterplans
  9. Exceptions counterplans
  10. Offset counterplans
  11. Advantage counterplans
  12. Uniqueness counterplans

Current students should consider whether and in what ways this list would need to be updated for their era of debate. At first glance, a few then-common counterplan types are no longer particularly popular: private counterplans, basic form of government counterplans (anarchism, socialism, world government, etc.), and offset counterplans aren’t completely extinct, but they are no longer “stock” counterplans. Process counterplans have become more prominent, and perhaps plan-contingent counterplans should be separated into their own category. What other changes are needed to update this list?

Solt’s purpose in outlining this summary of counterplan categories was to propose new standards for constraining negative fiat. At the time, Solt argued, there was a growing backlash to the excesses of negative fiat — especially when used to craft trans-topical counterplans that dodged the topic literature. After criticizing two earlier proposals for constraining negative fiat (Perkins’s “realm of discourse” standard and Ulrich’s “resolutional agent” standard), he outlined two new standards: the “domestic public actor” standard (negative fiat should be limited to U.S. government actors) and the “relevant policy literature” standard (negative fiat should be limited to proposals supported in the topic literature).

In the 30+ years since Solt introduced these standards, they have become relatively ubiquitous and generally accepted. While reading Solt’s defense of these new proposed standards, students should consider how accurately Solt’s predictions about how they would shape argument development anticipated today’s prevailing debate trends. Was Solt right about the “domestic public actor” standard? What contemporary theory debates intersect with this standard? Was Solt too optimistic about the limiting function of the “relevant policy literature” standard? In what contemporary theory controversies are similar issues still raised?

Finally, Solt’s discussion of the purpose of public policy debates and the relevance of political feasibility to considerations of the “best policy” probably sound quite familiar to current debaters. In what ways to today’s debates over related issues echo Solt’s arguments from 1989? In what ways do they differ?

While some of Solt’s other theory articles have remained “in the discourse” for students learning about theory controversies and theory debating, this one has mostly disappeared from discussion. I think that’s unfortunate. Students can learn a lot by engaging with this thoughtful, comprehensive, and relatively timeless exploration of important counterplan theory issues.

The full text of Solt’s article is below.

Solt, Roger. “Negative Fiat: Resolving the Ambiguities of ‘Should’.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 25, Issue 3, 1989, pp. 121-139.

Abstract: In recent years, a prominent difficulty for debate theory has involved the fiat of negative counterplans. Because of their abuse potential, some limits on counterplan fiat are needed. Nonetheless, standards which overly limit the counterplan are undesirable. The no negative fiat position associated with Branham’s view of counterplan as disadvantage would effectively destroy the counterplan and would thereby entail significant competitive and intellectual costs. Perkins’ realm of discourse standard also overly limits the counterplan option and inappropriately limits policy debate to exclusively mainstream proposals. Three alternatives for limiting negative fiat are suggested. The first is that negative fiat should be limited to U.S. public actors. Second, negative fiat should be limited to proposals found in the policy literature surrounding the topic. Third, the best alternative might be to include caveats or parameters to the resolution indicating the appropriate scope of negative counterplans.

The concept of “fiat” has long provided a source of both amusement and embarrassment to those contemplating debate theory. It has been branded an immoral and irrational strategy by some and has generated innumerable low-level witticisms pertaining to magic wands and Italian sports cars. The tendency to treat fiat as a reality rather than merely a figure of speech was at its peak in the mid-1970s when fiat was often argued to be non-democratic because it circumvented the normal decision-making process. It was even argued that the use of fiat would destroy business confidence because business people would be completely boggled by the apparently miraculous intervention of “fiat” into the normal workings of the political and economic system.

During the 1970s, the major controversies involving fiat related to the fiating of affirmative plans. Affirmative fiat still generates some controversies. Is fiat time-bound? Is fiat continuing? Does it assume some level of attitude change? Does fiat permit specification of implementational procedures? Does it allow/require specification of an agent and/or method of adoption? Does it extend to extra-topical provisions designed to preempt disadvantages? Can it be conditional? Such questions have remained in currency through- out this decade without producing any theoretical consensus. Although some- times troubling, these remaining ambiguities of affirmative fiat are peripheral to most debates. What does seem to have emerged is a fair degree of consensus regarding the basic nature of affirmative fiat.

Fiat is not an artificial intervention into the normal political process; rather, it is the assumption, for the sake of argument, that such a normal process has been employed and the affirmative plan has come into being. Fiat is merely another way of expressing the idea that something “should” rather than necessarily “will” be done. The view has sometimes been [end page 121] expressed that fiat is unnecessary, and perhaps the term itself is unfortunate. Nonetheless, some logical equivalent to the idea of fiat is necessarily implicit in any proposition of policy. To consider whether something should be done involves both the temporary suspension of concern for whether it would be done and an examination purely in terms of desirability.

There is currently consensus that such a minimalist concept of affirmative fiat is both necessary and legitimate. There is clearly, however, no such consensus where negative fiat is concerned. With the rise to prominence of the counterplan as a negative strategy, it is negative rather than affirmative fiat which is increasingly contentious. While affirmative fiat is a necessary consequence of the resolution’s wording, negative fiat is definitely more problematic. If affirmative fiat involves imagining that the affirmative plan were adopted, negative fiat is the act of imagining alternatives to the affirmative. While the resolution usually places some constraints relating to realism on the affirmative, the non-resolution places no such constraints on the negative. Consequently, the potential (and actual) abuses of negative fiat could fill a forensic wax museum.

Negative fiat has on occasion been extended both to private institutions and to foreign governments. Such an extension of negative fiat suggests the following potential counterplans. In a debate over pollution control, the negative could argue that the government should not establish stricter standards because industry “should” voluntarily control its emissions. Or in a debate over defense policy, the negative could argue that the U.S. should not build a new weapon system because the Soviet Union “should” unilaterally disarm. Intuitively, these two examples seem highly abusive, but they are not really very different than counterplans which have actually been run. The central premise of the labor union topic was clearly that unions could on occasion misuse their power. Yet counterplans were popular under that topic which assumed that fiat could occur at the level of the union itself. In effect the counterplan assumed away the basic premise of the topic by dictating that unions “should” go forth and sin no more. And if the Soviet disarmament counterplan seems unacceptable, it is hard to see why it is more acceptable to imagine that all the nations of the world lay down their weapons, forget cultural differences and national animosities, and form a peaceful (but appropriately decentralized) world government—a counterplan which has been run with some degree of frequency.

Not only are the actual and potential abuses of private sector and international fiat disturbing; many in debate have been concerned about the rise to prominence of such arguably “utopian” (and certainly generic) transtopical counterplans as anarchy and socialism. Such counterplans have been widely employed and frequently successful negative strategies. They have also launched a spate of speculation into the appropriate range of negative fiat. The argument has been made, drawing on Branham’s (1979) view of counterplan as disadvantage, that there should be no negative fiat. Other approaches have emerged (Perkins’ “realm of discourse” standard, described elsewhere in this issue, being perhaps the most notable), which while somewhat less restrictive than the no negative fiat position still dramatically curtail the scope of the counterplan option.

My position in this article is that while some limits on negative fiat are needed, theoretical solutions which effectively gut the counterplan option are excessive; they are radical surgery on the body of debate argument, when a relatively minor change in argumentative diet might be a sufficient cure for the dyspepsia of negative fiat abuse. The approach recommended here is to search for a middle ground, one [end page 122] which can minimize abusive counterplans while at the same time preserving the counterplan as a viable negative option. In the process of doing so, I hope to suggest, a new, more pluralistic paradigm of debate argument. The general viewpoint from which this article derives is that academic debate is a dialectical competition. Debate theory must also be dialectical, balancing a plurality of interests- intellectual, competitive, and educational. Previous paradigms tend to be one-sided, to view debate almost solely as a mode of intellectual inquiry or almost solely as a game. The reality is that academic debate is (and should be) both. The pluralistic view of debate theory would seek to strike a balance between the competing values and interests. Thus, in the case of negative fiat, a balance must ultimately be struck between the value of political realism on one hand and the value of speculative intellectual inquiry on the other.

I will begin with a consideration of the primary justifications for placing limits on negative fiat. Having concluded that some limits on negative fiat are necessary, I will then consider the leading alternative approaches for limiting fiat. I will consider the no-negative-fiat position associated with Branham’s (1979) concept of counterplan as disadvantage and will conclude that some scope for negative fiat is desirable. I will then consider two alternative standards according to which fiat might be limited: Perkins’ (1989) concept of the “realm of discourse” and Ulrich’s (1979, 1981) view of fiat as limited to the resolution’s agent. Finding none of these options fully acceptable, I conclude by offering three independent but hopefully complementary suggestions of my own for how the scope of negative fiat might best be defined.

The Case For Limits

Before considering the arguments in favor of limiting negative fiat, it would probably be helpful to clearly enumerate and distinguish between the major types of counterplans which have been argued in recent years. The following list may not be exhaustive, but it does distinguish twelve different types of counterplans, all of which have possessed some measure of popularity over the past decade.

The first type of counterplan employs foreign fiat. A good example of this type of counterplan has arisen on the current (1988-89) intercollegiate topic, pertaining to U.S. policy toward Africa. In response to an argument that the U.S. should act to correct some evil in Africa, the negative has argued as a counterplan that the Organization of African Unity should instead take action to deal with the problem. Counterplans on the space topic argued that the European Space Agency, rather than the U.S., should undertake a certain aspect of space development. Both of these counterplans acted through groups of nations of which the United States is not a member. Despite this “international” flavor, foreign fiat through a group of non-U.S. nations seems no different in principle than fiat through a single non-U.S. nation. This suggests the heretofore apocryphal counterplan mentioned earlier: That in response to an argument for increases in U.S. defense efforts, the negative might advocate as a counterplan that the Soviet Union “should” voluntarily disarm.

The second type of counterplan involves fiat through an international organization of which the U.S. is a member. Counterplans employing the UN or the OAS have been popular on a number of topics.

The third type of counterplan involves fiat through private self-interested institutions within the United States. On the topic calling for increased government regulation of mass media, self-regulation by the media themselves was suggested as a counterplan. Similarly, on the topic calling for government curtailment of the [end page 123] powers of labor unions, a counterplan was run with some frequency calling for unions to reform their own practices.

The fourth type of counterplan involves fiat through private institutions ostensibly dedicated to serving the public interest. The basic example is the counterplan which called for private foundations rather than the government to deal with some problem.

The fifth type of counterplan has called for fundamental changes in the basic structures of U.S. government. Socialism, libertarianism, anarchy, authoritarianism, bioregionalism, and world government are all examples.

The sixth counterplan variety has called for radical reforms specific to the problem area suggested by the topic. Most recent topics have generated at least one such counterplan: isolationism, disarmament and surrender on the military commitments topic, abolition of labor unions, abolition of the space program, government responsibility for hazardous wastes, deschooling and privatization on the education topic. Type five counterplans (those changing basic government forms) have been run recurrently on a number of topics. In contrast, the type six counterplan generally has been applied only to a single topic, the exception being some of the military posture counterplans which have reappeared on several foreign policy topics.

The seventh type of counterplan involves action (usually similar to that called for by the affirmative) by another level of government than that employed in the resolution. Since a majority of recent resolutions have called for federal action, counterplans at the state and local level have proven the most popular.

The eighth type are process counterplans. Rather than directly denying the desirability of the affirmative policy, they have argued for a different process than the affirmative employs to decide on the best policy. The study counterplan was the grandfather of this genre, but it has had many descendants: referendums, negotiations, planning and prioritization, and consultation being among the most prominent.

Ninth are exceptions counterplans. They have arisen on topics employing the term “all.” For example, on the topic calling for the elimination of all U.S. military intervention in the Western Hemisphere, a popular counterplan called for the elimination of all but humanitarian interventions. On the topic which called for stricter standards in all U.S. schools, a variety of counterplans argued to exempt certain types of schools.

Tenth is the offset counterplan. This has appeared on topics employing terms such as “increase” or “decrease.” For example, the space topic called for an increase in exploration and/or development of outer space. In contrast to a plan calling for a new remote surveillance satellite, the negative might urge a counterplan to adopt the new satellite but ban SDI, claiming that these two policies taken together would be a net decrease in space development.

The eleventh type of counterplan is one which simply aims to reduce the affirmative advantage. Such counterplans, which have largely replaced the traditional minor repair, are now frequently applied directly to the affirmative case, in effect as an inherency argument.

The twelfth type of counterplan is one intended to make disadvantages unique. It has become increasingly popular for the second negative to counterplan out affirmative uniqueness answers to disadvantages. One example is U.S. credibility disadvantages on the NATO topic. Counterplans designed to make such disadvantages unique ranged from reneging on the INF deal to firing the current Secretary of Defense.

Undoubtedly, there are counterplans which fall beyond the boundaries of these twelve categories and some counterplans [end page 124] which combine categories, but I believe these classes cover both the most prominent and the most controversial types of counterplans. Many of these types of counterplans are controversial—and they are controversial for a variety of reasons. The uniqueness-generating counterplan is controversial because it so often appears in second negative; the advantage-reducing counterplan is rarely attacked on theoretical grounds, but is frequently criticized because it is so often blithely asserted without analytical or evidential substance. The offset counterplan is highly controversial but mainly on grounds of competitiveness rather than negative fiat. With many of these counterplans, however, the primary controversy relates to the propriety of their use of fiat. Of these, the first five types of counterplans have been particularly controversial in this regard. And perhaps because of their popularity, it is the government form counterplans (type five) which have probably created the greatest furor. Especially with the rise of permutations, most counterplans are somewhat vulnerable on competition grounds. Nonetheless, given a consistent, additive disadvantage many such counterplans have been able to prove themselves competitive by net benefits. Thus, there has been an increasing interest in looking beyond competition as a means of dealing with these counterplans. One prominent approach has been to seek to place limits on the scope of negative fiat.

In evaluating the different proposals for limiting negative fiat, it seems essential to consider the varying reasons offered for why negative fiat should be limited. How fiat should be limited is critically related to the rationale for why it should be limited. There are at least four major reasons offered for why restrictions are needed. First is the so-called “utopianism” of many counterplans. Second is the slippery slope of abuse potential present in the concept. Third is the overly generic (especially trans-topical) nature of many counterplans. Fourth and finally, there is the sense of non sequitur that many counterplans seem to produce. I wish to consider each of these in some detail.

The first objection, utopianism, is launched primarily against the generic change of government form counterplans such as socialism, anarchy, and world government. I find this objection the least compelling reason for limiting negative fiat. First, it seems very difficult to define the “utopian.” Each of these forms of government has advocates who believe in its viability. They may not believe in the immediate political practicality of such reforms, but they clearly don’t believe them to be “utopian.” All policies, affirmative or negative, fall on a continuum of political practicality, and there is certainly no clear dividing line between utopian and non-utopian policies. Second, what is considered “utopian” depends critically on time and place. Most of the world’s population lives under a government or with an economic system that could be labeled either authoritarian or socialist. None of these alternatives may be very likely in contemporary America, but certainly there are circumstances, such as an ecological crisis or serious depression, under which one or more might be seriously considered. In such a situation an informed understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of such alternative government forms might well be crucial. Even one firmly opposed to such radical alternatives might feel they should be debated in order to expose their weaknesses. Third, if one takes seriously the claim that debate should involve a broadly philosophical inquiry into questions of public policy, that it should attack fundamental assumptions and consider basic alternatives, then it seems inappropriate to rule certain positions out of order simply because of their radical nature.

While it is not clear that “utopianism” is an adequate ground or criterion for limiting negative fiat, it does seem clear [end page 125] that the extreme abuse potential present in limitless fiat provides a rationale for setting some limits. Even those who find government form counterplans acceptable might balk at some other types of counterplan. I believe that the first four types of counterplans listed above (foreign, international, and private sector) illustrate this type of abuse potential. But even they do not exhaust the limits to which negative fiat could be carried. It might be possible to generate counterplans based on individual fiat: rather than stricter sentencing, a counterplan might say that individual criminals “should” morally reform themselves. At the farthest extreme one could even imagine metaphysical fiat: the negative might argue that the laws of nature “should” be different. The affirmative is, at least at first glance, limited to proposing policies which fall within the resolution; in contrast, there is almost no limit on what falls outside the resolution. Surely some of the counterplans suggested above would go beyond the scope of what almost anyone would consider either fair or intellectually illuminating to debate. Debatability and intellectual coherence require that some limits be placed on negative fiat.

The third reason for limiting negative fiat is to avoid overly generic counterplans, especially those which recur on topic after topic. There is both a practical and a more theoretical reason for wishing to provide such a limit. Practically speaking, it seems educationally undesirable to encourage debaters to specialize so much on an individual argument, running it year after year until in effect they become “professional” anarchists or authoritarians. A more theoretical rationale derives from the consideration of the discussion-directing function of the topic. The notion that the resolution directs discussion has been held to apply primarily to the affirmative, but if this purpose is to be accomplished it seems clear that it must in some sense bind the negative as well. If the negative can with impunity raise a set of issues unrelated to the ostensible subject of the resolution, for example, shifting from a debate over old age policy to one concerning world government or anarchy, the purpose of the resolution in directing discussion to a different specific subject area each year has been frustrated.

The fourth and final concern is difficult to precisely formulate, but it seems to go to the heart of the negative fiat issue. It often seems that the counterplan as a response to the affirmative plan constitutes a kind of argumentative non sequitur. To respond to an argument for strengthening NATO with the argument that the Soviet Union should disarm simply seems non-germane; it seems irrelevant given the basic terms of the discussion. Similarly, an argument that corporations “shouldn’t” pollute seems beside the point in the context of a discussion of public policy toward the environment. Similarly, the alleged merits of anarchy or world government do not seem germane to a discussion of social security reform. This is true even if these alternatives are competitive, as in fact they often seem to be. (Action by government and the abolition of government really do seem mutually exclusive.) Thus, competition is not in itself a sufficient means for excluding this type of counterplan. The point seems to be that every discussion operates within a certain implicit frame of reference (or, as Perkins puts it, a “realm of discourse”). To avoid this sense of non sequitur what is needed is to find some way of discovering or defining that implicit frame of reference for debate.

The Case For Counterplans As Counterplans

Given the conclusion that some limits on negative fiat are essential, the question then arises as to just what those limits should be. The most draconian limit proposed is that there should no negative fiat [end page 126] at all. The argument that there should be no negative fiat is one which has been frequently made in intercollegiate debate over the past few years. The theoretical basis for the no negative fiat position is found in Branham’s (1979) view of counterplan as disadvantage. The crux of Branham’s position, as I understand it, is that one of the primary costs of adopting any policy is that one foregoes the opportunity to obtain the benefits of other competitive policies (Branham, 1989). These “opportunity costs” can be accrued either because the first policy physically excludes the second, because it undercuts its benefits, or because it makes it politically less feasible to adopt. The degree to which the opportunity cost is a relevant one, however, depends upon the degree to which the counterplan was a politically realistic option to begin with. The abolition of all government in the United States may well be competitive with a policy requiring consumer math to be taught in U.S. public schools, but since anarchy has no realistic chance of coming into being at present, and since a consumer math program would have no discernible effect on the likelihood of anarchy being adopted, then the benefits of anarchy are an irrelevant cost in considering the adoption of consumer math.

Branham’s discussion is very illuminating in explaining how a “counterplan” (taking the term in his somewhat idiosyncratic sense) does function as a disadvantage. It also seems to be a very sensible way to evaluating the costs of an individual policy considered in isolation. While his theory does considerable justice to the counterplan conceived of as a disadvantage, it is my contention that it fails to do justice to the counterplan conceived of as a counterplan. That is, Branham’s framework is not appropriate for a situation in which two or more policies are being directly compared in terms of their desirability.

What is at issue here is clearly a question of terminology, but it is an important one. I believe that Branham uses the term “counterplan” in a rather different sense than is customary. As commonly envisioned, a counterplan is a negative plan (that is, the negative team has designed and specified its details), which is offered to the judge as an alternative possessing coequal status with the affirmative plan. (That is, the counterplan, like the plan, is to be assessed purely in terms of its desirability, rather than in terms of its political practicality.) The judge is assumed to have as much ability to either adopt or endorse the counterplan as s/he is the plan.

What Branham calls a “counterplan” is merely an alternative open to the status quo. To have any impact as a disadvantage, there must be at least some likelihood that this alternative will come into being absent the affirmative plan. Furthermore, this is not an alternative designed by the negative team (hence not a plan in the normal debate sense); nor is there any real incentive for the negative to designate specific features (such as funding or enforcement) of this policy unless it can be shown that those precise features would be adopted absent the affirmative. Indeed, the very language of “counterplan” seems irrelevant to this type of argument. Arguments of this type are advanced frequently simply as disadvantages (i.e., the affirmative plan prevents socialism) with none of the language or theory of the counterplan being invoked.

In essence, Branham’s position shifts the focus of the debate from a normative comparison between two (or more) co-equal policies to a comparison of the world with the affirmative plan to the world without it (i.e., the status quo as it would predictably evolve). Such a shift might be desirable; nonetheless, it is important to realize that a genuine shift has occurred. In traditional debate, the counterplan has not functioned solely (or perhaps even primarily) as a disadvantage; [end page 127] it has often served as an inherency argument, an argument that the plan (or resolution) is not the best solution to a problem. The essential function of the counterplan is often to reduce affirmative significance to the point where some disadvantage (linked to the plan but avoided by the counterplan) is sufficient to outweigh. This primary role of the counterplan in academic debate is essentially nullified if the counterplan is viewed exclusively as a disadvantage.

While Branham’s construct provides a good way of understanding and evaluating a certain important type of disadvantage (i.e., disadvantages relating to the opportunity costs associated with foregoing other policies or rendering them less valuable), it is not a good way of evaluating counterplans. In fact, I believe that the no negative fiat/counterplan as disadvantage position effectively destroys the counterplan as a negative strategy. Certainly it seriously undercuts any of the more radical counterplan varieties—the various forms of international fiat, the radical change of government form counterplans, and the relatively radical counterplans which contemplate fundamental changes in core institutions unique to the particular topic. In none of these cases is the likelihood really very great that such a counterplan would occur absent the plan; thus, the plan will provide a minimal disadvantage link at best (and in the case of very small affirmative plans, the link will be even more miniscule). Similarly, process counterplans which rely for their advantage on some relatively unusual decision making process are unlikely to have impact as disadvantages precisely because they advocate a departure from normal means. Likewise, exception counterplans are unlikely to meet this test, since it will be rare that the negative can show any likelihood that the counterplan with the negative’s exact exception would be adopted absent the affirmative. Finally, even the most common types of counterplan, harm reducing and uniqueness enhancing, are unlikely to function well solely as disadvantages since they would require specific tradeoff evidence which will often be unavailable. It might be argued that this simply proves that these are not very good arguments. My response would be that it shows that they are not arguments which can be well linked as disadvantages. As counterplans, that is, policies considered on their own merits, they may well have substantial intellectual merit. Certainly they have considerable strategic significance given the current competitive balance of contemporary debate.

I believe that the no negative fiat position which has emerged (at least historically) out of the counterplan as disadvantage theory would mean the end of the counterplan as we have known it. How tragic this occurrence would be depends, of course, on how intellectually and competitively valuable one believes the counterplan to be. I personally see four major values associated with the counterplan as counterplan and hence with negative fiat.

First, the counterplan best fulfills the intellectual/analytical function of debate. The primary purpose of a policy debate should be to find the best policy. There are clearly some policy debates which would focus on the narrower question of whether one policy is better than the status quo. A Congressional floor debate parallels this narrower situation. But it is also important that there be forums which consider more fundamental, even if less realistic alternatives. After all, political realities are fleeting. In 1928, how politically likely was the New Deal? In 1975, what were the political probabilities of the “Reagan revolution”? Those involved in academic debate are far from the centers of political power. It therefore seems more useful, especially for undergraduates, to consider the broad directions in which society should move rather than what policies have immediate political practicality. [end page 128] The abolition of negative fiat, I believe, rules out such an inquiry. It would tie debaters to the realm of policies which are currently realistic, offering essentially no options for the consideration of alternatives outside of the political mainstream. The result is likely to be intellectual tunnel vision, discourse conducted exclusively within the narrow confines of present political realities. It should be noted further that it is not only so-called “utopian” government form counterplans that the prohibition of negative fiat would preclude. Such radical but topic-specific counterplans as deschooling (for which there is no more realistic chance at present than there is for socialism) raise fundamental questions of public policy which could not realistically be raised in the absence of negative fiat. If the search is really to find the best policy, then alternatives from beyond the political mainstream should be allowed.

A second basic argument for negative fiat relates to the role of the counterplan in providing competitive equity. Two major developments in debate over the past twenty years were the demise of the “stock issues” emphasis and the popularity of extremely expansive topics. The result has been that on most topics the affirmative possesses an extremely wide range of choices and the most minimal burdens in terms of significance. Significance, inherency, and solvency are rarely winning arguments for the negative in themselves. To win a debate on its policy merits usually requires the negative to win either a disadvantage or a counterplan. In such an argumentative world, disadvantage-ducking has become a prime affirmative strategy. Moreover, the type of case which is least prone to disadvantages is likely to be a fringe interpretation with very low significance. Pushed to its extreme, the result can be topic trivialization—affirmatives have every incentive to select the most petty and insignificant examples of the resolution. The generic counterplan emerged in large part as a strategy for countering expansive topics and trivial affirmatives. Rather than being limited to the narrow corner of the topic selected by the affirmative, the counterplan refocused debate on larger issues. Given fiat, a generic counterplan will probably link as well to a small affirmative as a large one. But if the counterplan must be run solely as a disadvantage, the same problems which arise in linking any disadvantage to obscure, small significance affirmatives would apply. Thus, in a world without negative fiat it seems fairly clear that there would be added incentives toward trivial affirmatives.

The rise of the counterplan has helped to restore side equity to debate, as several factors suggest. In the mid-1970s, before the popularization of the counterplan, affirmatives had a decided competitive advantage. To choose negative in an elimination round was almost unheard of. While I know of no data on the subject of the percentage of affirmative wins, my distinct impression (based upon attendance at from ten to fifteen NDT tournaments a year for the past sixteen years) is that negatives are winning far more often. Certainly far more teams select the negative in elimination rounds than was once the case. Other factors are clearly involved in the revitalization of the negative, but the very popularity of the counterplan as a strategy would suggest that it has played an important role.

A final fairness/equity consideration speaking in favor of negative fiat is the simple consideration of reciprocity. The affirmative is allowed to design in detail a policy and offer it for consideration on its own merits, regardless of its political practicality. Thus, there seems to be at least some equity interest in allowing the negative to design its own policy and advocate it on its own merits.

A third major argument is that the equivalent of negative fiat exists in most forums other than academic debate which [end page 129] consider these types of policy questions. As maintained above, the actual decision of whether to vote for or against a bill may reflect a relatively rare instance in which the focus would be exclusively on one policy, and a no-negative-fiat situation would prevail. But even in Congress, at an earlier stage in the decision process, the equivalent of negative fiat would exist. An administration drug bill, for example, would probably be countered by an alternative bill sponsored by members of the opposing party. In fact, there might be several bills being considered in the same set of hearings. Arguments relating to political feasibility might still be raised to some degree even at this stage of the policy process. But surely the primary focus of discussion would (or at least should) be normative—i.e., which really is the better bill. A member of Congress who was too exclusively preoccupied with politics would be blameworthy in the eyes of most citizens. Presumably, the ideal Congressional committee would attempt first to discover the optimal policy and then search for means to make it politically feasible. Only after considerable efforts of persuasion should “second best” policies be endorsed.

In scholarly forums where policy issues are argued the emphasis tends to be even more normative and less political. A scholar who offered one policy proposal would almost certainly compare his or her suggestion to other competitive policies which have been proposed. Given the situation, arguments might arise about comparative political feasibility, but argument would more often center on the actual merits of the policies, not their immediate practicality.

A fourth consideration favoring negative fiat relates to the role of the judge as decision maker. I believe that the judge should not assume any particular role, be it member of Congress or social scientist, in evaluating the debate. Rather, the judge should reflect the perspective of an ideally impartial, informed, and eclectic viewpoint. Most consistent with this view of the judge seems to be a view of fiat simply as an act of intellectual endorsement. If intellectual endorsement is all that occurs at the end of the debate, there is no real reason why the judge should be precluded from endorsing options outside the political mainstream—if they are competitive with the affirmative.

For those who still envision the judge as playing the role of an actual decision maker, and therefore think of fiat as a “power,” a relatively expansive view of negative fiat still seems to be justified. As the policy making perspective has evolved, the judge is generally imagined to act with the full powers of the agent specified in the resolution, most commonly the federal government. Assuming the judge to have such powers, s/he could adopt by fiat any competing policy within the realm of federal authority.

Previous Approaches To Limiting Fiat

The consensus of the debate community is, I believe, that negative fiat in some form or another is desirable. Nonetheless, there appear to be compelling reasons for placing some limits on negative fiat. This section of the article will examine two previous attempts to define the reasonable scope of negative fiat.

The first standard for limiting negative fiat is Dallas Perkins’ (1989) concept of the “realm of discourse.” Perkins’ position suggests that negative fiat should be allowed only for policies at least as politically feasible as the affirmative (i.e., enjoying at least as great a likelihood of passage). Any other “counterplans” would not enjoy fiat and would be forced to function simply as disadvantages.

Perkins’ position represents, I believe, a major theoretical advance. Its great merit is that it recognizes that argument does function within a realm of discourse—that [end page 130] it operates within certain implicit limits as to the proper scope of argument. I believe, therefore, that the concept of a realm of discourse is an extremely fruitful one and one which provides considerable illumination to the issue of negative fiat. My quarrel is not with what I believe to be Perkins’ most basic insight—that determining an appropriate realm of discourse is the proper route to limiting negative fiat. It is rather with the exact limits of the realm of discourse which he defends.

My basic indictment of Perkins’ approach may well be what he considers its greatest strength: that, in effect, it guts the counterplan as a negative option. Because I believe it would eliminate most of the major types of counterplans which have been run in recent years (and seriously compromise those that remained), most of the indictments leveled against the no-negative-fiat position would also apply, albeit with somewhat muted force, to Perkins’ approach.

The following factors militate against the extreme limit provided by the comparative political feasibility standard. First, it is not a standard observed in most non-debate policy advocacy settings. Real world advocates are not limited to proposing policies as politically feasible as those advanced by their opponents. If an advocate felt strongly enough about a given option, s/he might still devote most of his or her time and energy to arguing its merits, even if the hope of adoption seemed slim. Surely there are occasions on which even politically shortsighted members of Congress propose alternative policies despite their relatively slim chance of passage. If advocate A proposed mandatory seat belt laws and advocate B proposed mandatory air bags, the air bag proposal would (in most settings, especially those of an academic or theoretical sort) probably be considered germane and relevant even if its political practicality were somewhat less than the initial seat belt proposal. In most situations, certain policies (such as anarchy) are excluded because of their lack of political practicality. Perkins’ approach would successfully exclude these types of counterplans, but it would also exclude many counterplans which while less politically likely than the initial plan are still intuitively relevant.

Second, Perkins approach is inconsistent with the most common views of the role of the judge. If the judge is assumed to have the powers of the resolutional agent, s/he would have the ability to adopt alternatives even if they were less politically likely. If the “power” of the judge is merely the “power” of intellectual endorsement, s/he clearly has the ability to intellectually affirm an approach that is more marginal politically.

Third, the political feasibility standard would eliminate most of the popular generic counterplans which have been run in recent years. Except as a response to the most radical of affirmatives, alternative government form counterplans would clearly be excluded. Further, systemic but topic-specific counterplans (deschooling, disarmament, etc.) would also be excluded. So would most process counterplans. Even the exception counterplan might not fare well under this approach since to carve out a narrow exception to a general policy might be less politically feasible than a more all-encompassing policy. Many would fail to mourn the demise of the generic counterplan. It is my perception, however, that these counterplans (especially those geared to specific topics) have raised interesting intellectual issues and that in many, if not all, instances, they have introduced into debate ideas which were worthy of consideration.

A fourth problem is that Perkins’ standard would rule out innovative solutions. If advocates were generally limited to politically likely options, new ideas would rarely be raised. The result would be an even more stultified political discourse than presently prevails. [end page 131]

Fifth, advocacy may influence probability of adoption. Radical ideas eventually reach the political agenda by being advocated and gradually accepted. If such ideas were never entertained on their own merits until political practicality was established, the political agenda would never change.

Sixth, the political feasibility standard is difficult to debate. Most public policy argument is normative—it concerns the desirability of policies, not the probability of their adoption. It is an attempt to persuade, not an attempt to predict political outcomes. Except for policies under immediate consideration, there may be little if any evidence about probability of adoption. Political feasibility turns on many imponderables: who is the bill’s key sponsor? How many political debts can s/he call in? How will the media react? How much money will go into the lobbying effort? How many phone calls will Reagan make? Will Reagan’s credibility be up or down at the time of the plan’s consideration? Not only are these issues intangible; they also seem less than scintillating subjects for debate. Obviously, some policies are orders of magnitude more politically feasible than others, but in other cases, the political prospects of a policy would be pure guesswork. How does one compare the probability that the Supreme Court would reverse a 9-0 decision with the probability of world government?

Seventh, the political feasibility standard encounters the topic trivialization problem with a vengeance. To undercut counterplan ground, the affirmative would have a large incentive to argue for the smallest possible topical deviation from the status quo. Bills on the verge of passage and court cases already on appeal would become prime affirmative territory. If negatives could advocate nothing more radical than the affirmative, affirmatives would almost certainly come to inhabit almost exclusively the dead bull’s eye of the absolute political center. One need not be a subscriber to World Marxist Review to find that prospect unappealing.

The eighth and final argument is that a long term normative focus is more important for debaters than is short term political realism. Political realities are transitory, and debaters have no short term influence on policy anyway. It seems more intellectually valuable for debaters to acquire a general understanding of the range of policy alternatives, both radical and mainstream, proposed for dealing with a given problem than it is for them to acquire an intricate knowledge of the politics of the present Congress.

A second standard for limiting negative fiat has been proposed by Walter Ulrich (1979, 1981). His suggestion is that negative fiat should be limited to acts which could be undertaken by the agent specified in the resolution. The basic argument is that in considering, for example, a federal resolution, the judge is assuming the role of a federal decision maker (or perhaps the federal government in general). A decision maker occupying that institutional role would not simultaneously occupy an institutional role at another level of government; hence, there would be no fiat power at those alternative levels.

I believe that Ulrich’s standard is the best which has been proposed thus far — indeed, it is fairly close to the domestic public actor standard which I will suggest below. Ulrich’s standard, however, posits a very narrow policy-making view of the debate process. It assumes that the judge actually adopts the role of a federal decision maker, or whatever the topical agent may be. I have already indicted the idea that the judge should assume such a critical perspective. Many who consider questions of public policy are not actual decision makers, and for such non-decision makers, a question such as the comparative desirability of state versus federal [end page 132] action (which Ulrich’s approach would exclude) might well arise.

Three New Alternatives

In this section, I wish to discuss three suggestions of my own for limiting the scope of negative fiat. The first of these is that fiat should be limited to domestic public actors. This is a limitation in accord with the implicit framework of NDT and high school policy debate. Over the past twenty years, every topic except one at the high school or college level has called for action by some agent of the United States government. (Even on apparently agentless topics, there has been an implicit U.S. governmental agent.) These debate topics have embodied liberal and conservative values; they have addressed both domestic and foreign policies; they have allowed both state and federal actions. They have varied in innumerable ways but with one exception they have shared a common perspective: they have raised questions of United States public policy. This suggests to me that U.S. public policy is the implicit frame of reference (or realm of discourse) for this type of debate. If foreign or private action were considered an appropriate subject for discussion in this forum, it seems likely that at least occasionally such a position would be assigned to the affirmative. Since this has not occurred, it seems clear that such approaches are not considered relevant or appropriate by the debate community. In the mid-1970s there was one high school topic which called for action by an international organization. This experiment has not been repeated, suggesting that such an approach did not prove to be highly successful. Thus, despite this exception, it seems safe to say that U.S. public policy is the focus of academic policy debate as it occurs in the United States.

This restriction makes sense in light of the widely held perception that debate is most useful as an adjunct to democratic decision making. If debate is seen as part of the democratic process, then it makes sense for debate to consider only alternatives which are subject to democratic influence. While the responsiveness and rationality of government actors is highly imperfect, U.S. governmental actors are ultimately accountable to the public and must therefore be at least somewhat attentive to public argument. Foreign governments clearly have no such accountability to the U.S. public and very minimal incentives to be attentive to argument within American media. Similarly, private actors are accountable to share-holders and customers, not to the public at large; hence, their susceptibility to reasoned argument appealling to a disinterested concept of the public good is limited.

This limitation of the realm of discourse to U.S. public policy corresponds to the argumentative practice found in most non-debate forums. Arguments about U.S. foreign policy almost always take the rest of the world as a given. To respond to a proposal to strengthen NATO with a proposal for Soviet disarmament seems inappropriate because alleged Soviet militarism is one of the essential preconditions of the discussion. To imagine it away is to abolish the framework within which the discussion is to proceed. The debate over ballistic missile defense has not been shaped by the argument that the Soviet Union “should” disarm (while there are activists who argue for U.S. disarmament as an alternative to a military buildup). Nor to my knowledge has the argument that business “should” take the initiative to control its own pollution ever been a major force in the acid rain debate. As this example suggests, debates concerning the regulation of business have to take the reality of present business practices as a given in order to be intelligible. Self-regulation is sometimes suggested, but it [end page 133] carries impact as an argument only if it can be shown to be practically feasible. To say that self-regulation is preferable would almost never, in and of itself, be considered an adequate response. (It is almost by definition preferable, as is a peaceful world in which strong defense would be unnecessary.) Thus, my primary conclusion is that when a question of U.S. public policy is raised in almost any argumentative forum it is likely to be considered appropriate to juxtapose alternative U.S. public policies, but it is very unlikely that policies involving non-U.S. or non-governmental actors would be considered, absent arguments about their likelihood. The limitation to domestic public actors seems to correspond to an implicit limitation already observed in public policy argument.

The U.S. public actor standard provides a clear, relatively unequivocal limit and avoids the slippery slope of highly abusive modes of negative fiat (foreign, private, individual, metaphysical, etc.). It would, in principle, rule out the first four types of counterplan mentioned earlier. Some examples of the fifth type of counterplan (i.e., world government and world anarchy) would also be eliminated, though other “utopian” counterplans would be permitted provided they were limited to actions which could be undertaken by the U.S. government.

This approach assumes that fiat is simply an act of intellectual endorsement, and it assumes an ideally generalized rather than a specifically role-governed perspective by the judge. It closely parallels the Ulrich standard, but it differs in two ways. First, Ulrich’s standard seems to assume that the judge takes the actual role of the resolutional agent; when in fact this limitation is one observed in almost all discourse in which Americans are likely to engage pertaining to the topics considered in policy debate. A second distinction is that the public domestic actor standard would probably allow counterplans at another level of the U.S. government. The legitimacy of such counterplans strikes me as a close call. One of the basic assumptions of many calls for federal action is that the states have had authority in a certain area and failed to act; thus, arguably, state action as it will predictably evolve should be taken as one of the givens of the discussion. On the other hand, normative discussion over the desirability of state versus federal action is common in American public policy discourse. At any rate, the domestic public actor standard would by definition allow counterplans at alternative levels of the U.S. government—the availability of such a large literature comparing the effectiveness of different levels of government seems to make this a relevant debate, although one that has become rather tedious.

The case for eliminating exclusively foreign fiat and fiat through private self-interested institutions (types one and three) is, I believe, relatively clear. It is the more mixed types of counterplans, international counterplans with U.S. participation (type two) and fiat through private “public interest” institutions which require more consideration. The domestic public actor standard would clearly eliminate both. It thus seems appropriate to examine both these types of counterplans specifically.

A defense of international fiat could proceed as follows. Americans are citizens of the United States, but they are also citizens of the world. They can attempt to persuade their own domestic institutions, but they can also attempt to persuade international institutions; thus, arguments for what global institutions “should” do is also appropriate and important. This analysis, however, seems to assume that such international institutions are fundamentally autonomous, rather than embodying the various national interests of their member countries. International organizations derive their powers from [end page 134] and are ultimately accountable to individual governments. A prerequisite of changing the policy of an international organization would be to first change the policy of enough non-American governments to permit the counterplan. Thus, such a counterplan involves foreign fiat once again, albeit at one remove. As suggested above, there are very few argument situations in which an argument about what a foreign government “should” do is considered germane to a discussion about what the U.S. government “should” do.

The argument for fiat through private foundations is that they too serve the public interest and therefore should be attentive to the types of public policy argument debate employs. But while such entities may have a quasi-public purpose they are not ultimately accountable to the public. Possessing their own purposes and priorities, they exist largely beyond the scope of public influence; hence, argument is unlikely to center on what they should do, relative to what government should do. Furthermore, allowing fiat through this type of institution raises the spectre of a slippery slope by assuming that it is the institutional purpose of the entity that determines whether it is an appropriate agent for fiat. But unions, for example, are ostensibly dedicated to the interests of their members. By this logic, counterplans where unions took action to aid their own membership would have been legitimate on the labor topic. Foreign fiat would become legitimate by this standard provided that it could be shown that such a counterplan was consistent with the interests of that nation’s citizens. Such arguments, I have suggested, destroy the implicit framework of debate; moreover, they are not a mode of argument employed in any forum of public policy discourse. Similarly, the argument that the government should not act because some private, charitable actor “should” (rather than that it will) is rarely if ever encountered in such discourse. Finally, a prerequisite for changing the scope of policies of private philanthropic organizations is persuasion of the individuals or firms which endow those organizations. Once again, either private or individual fiat would have to be implicit in such a counterplan.

Some limit on the scope of negative fiat is necessary, and the domestic public actor standard marks a relatively clear dividing line in the continuum of possible counterplans. If it excludes some types of counterplans which some would want to defend, it clearly justifies many counterplans placed at risk by other standards. Given some of the current draconian proposals to limit counterplan ground, it provides a reasonably moderate constraint.

It is not, however, totally satisfactory. It still leaves room for relatively free play for most of the so-called “utopian” counterplans. While I do not object to their “utopianism” per se, I do find their highly generic, trans-topical character to be troubling. In addition, they often raise, in the most violent form, the sense of argumentative non sequitur. To suggest that we should not teach consumer math because we should dissolve the government is not an argument that I have ever seen in a public forum.

It is because of these lingering problems that I offer a second potential limit for negative fiat: that counterplans should be constrained by the relevant policy literature.

This policy context standard would not rule out generic government form or process counterplans, but it would require that in order to be run the negative be able to offer evidence that these policies have been proposed as relevant to the problem the resolution considers. Thus, for example, on the retirement security topic, socialism would probably be an acceptable counterplan (a good deal of literature isolates capitalism as the root cause of retirement insecurity), but anarchy probably would not. (I have never seen anarchy [end page 135] defended as a solution to the problems of the aged.) A negotiation counterplan (calling on all interested parties to negotiate a solution to the affirmative harm area) would be acceptable on an environmental topic (environmental policy being a major area where negotiation has been employed) but would not probably be considered germane to questions of old age security.

I see a number of benefits to this approach. First, it places a relatively clear and objective limit on negative fiat. Field context is a familiar and empirically functional standard of topicality analysis. Policy context is considered to be a good standard for determining what a topic means in order to place limits on affirmative case selection. Similarly, it seems appropriate that policy context define the range of alternatives considered germane to a discussion of a certain policy area.

Second, this approach maximizes the discussion-directing function of the resolution. A major reason for having a resolution is to direct discussion to a certain area of public policy. The policy context standard requires that negative argument also be grounded in positions actually found in the problem area the resolution addresses. The notion that the resolution should also in some sense bind the negative will seem counter-intuitive to some, but if the negative can readily shift debate from the ground to which the resolution directed the affirmative, its discussion-directing function will have been largely vitiated.

Third, the policy context standard limits trans-topical counterplans. A counterplan such as socialism could still be run on many topics (socialist writers tend to blame all the ills of mankind on capitalism), but most other generic counterplans would be limited on many topics.

Fourth, I believe this standard may best answer the sense of argumentative non sequitur which many generic counterplans have created. What better way to prove a policy germane than to show that authors publishing in the topic’s policy literature have considered it so? Alternatively, if no source regards the policy as relevant to the problem area of the topic, such a policy is almost certainly an argumentative non sequitur; no one evaluating arguments on this topic would be likely to consider it relevant.

This standard could (and I think should) operate in conjunction with the U.S. public actor standard discussed above. Together, they should offer a reasonable, though clearly not overly limiting, standard for negative fiat.

Nonetheless, the policy context standard does raise a number of troubling problems. First, it can be argued that debate is not “the real world” and hence that real world standards of argument are irrelevant to debate’s purposes. Debaters should not be bound by what has been advanced in the published literature sur- rounding the topic. This objection rests on what I believe to be a false dichotomy between debate and the “real world.” As Snider (1982) has pointed out, the debaters and judges are all “real,” and a “real” debate is going on; that is, a real policy argument is taking place. A debate before Congress is no more or less “real” than a debate in a university classroom. If debate is regarded as a “real” public policy argument, then the same standards that an intelligent individual would apply in evaluating such arguments in other settings would also apply to debate. Admittedly, academic debate has its unique attributes, but as an example of public policy discourse, I see no good reason why its argumentative standards should depart radically from the logic of policy discourse in general. And, as I have contended, one of the basic facts about policy discourse is that it always operates within an implicit frame of reference or set of argumentative assumptions. Given this premise, the published literature seems to be the most objective source of inferences for that [end page 136] implicit frame of reference in terms of a specific policy debate.

A second objection is essentially the opposite of the first: that this standard provides no meaningful limits on the scope of fiat. A detailed computer search, it is argued, could turn up some source which would link a given counterplan to almost any topic. Obviously, for one for whom the allegedly utopian counterplans are an anathema, the prospect that this standard might allow them to flourish is a major mark in its disfavor. How limiting this standard would prove in practice is an open question. I suspect that many counterplans really have so little to do with many topics that no literature search, no matter how rigorous, would turn up evidence linking the two. Nor is it clear that negative debaters would have the competitive incentive to devote immense amounts of time to conducting such a search. At the very least, the successful effort to find evidence linking the generic counterplan to the problem area of the topic should serve to make the counterplan more germane and make for a better, more topic-focused debate. Finally, if there really is a body of literature proposing a certain generic counterplan as a means of addressing the issues the topic raises, then the counterplan does seem to be germane and to dismiss it out of hand seems intolerant and anti-intellectual.

A third problem is the question of whether this standard justifies requiring specific link evidence for disadvantages. I don’t believe that it does. The question of disadvantage links involves a factual question: will X cause Y? Certainly specific evidence helps to establish such a link, but there may be other methods of analysis or logical inference which can produce some probability that the link is true. Moreover, the non-specific link is likely to be assessed as less probable than the specific one. The germaneness of a counterplan is a different kind of question. It is a question of whether the counterplan is an appropriate policy alternative to consider its relation to a given subject. The policy context standard imposes the minimal test that at least some published source must have considered the counterplan to be a germane alternative. Not only is this a minimal test of relevance; it is probably the only one available. There is another, related, answer to this objection. The question of disadvantage links is almost purely a question of the logic of policy discourse—that is, it is a question of substantive policy analysis. Standards of fairness have nothing to do with empirical questions of factual linkage. Negative fiat, on the other hand, is a more mixed kind of construct—both substantive and procedural/fairness considerations seem to be involved. The logic of the subject matter is unclear in terms of the proper scope of negative fiat—”should” remains an ambiguous term. There are compelling fairness grounds for limiting negative fiat—the potential abusiveness of non-germane counterplans—thus, the fact that there is a fairness component makes the counterplan fiat issue distinct from the question of disadvantage links. Finally, disadvantage links are probabilistic; whether fiat is extended to a certain counterplan is a threshold question, more analogous to topicality. A disadvantage without a specific link is likely to be assigned a low probability. Once the right of fiat is extended to a counterplan, however, the lack of specific link evidence in no way compromises its impact. Relevance is a threshold, all or nothing, issue; thus, it seems legitimate to have somewhat higher standards of proof than is the case with probabilistic questions such as the magnitude of a disadvantage link.

A fourth problem concerns the scope of the relevant policy literature. Most topics seem to implicate a fairly discrete policy literature. It does not seem too difficult to determine the basic scope of the literature on U.S. policy toward Africa, but certainly some ambiguity will continue to [end page 137] exist on the exact scope of the relevant literature. This raises some practical problems in applying this standard.

Another problem of scope relates to counterplans directed toward affirmative harms which are tangential to the topic. The appropriate standard here would seem to be that if the affirmative introduces a harm issue into the debate, it should be liable to counterplans derived from the literature surrounding that harm area. Thus, if the affirmative claims to avert a nuclear war, the negative should be able to argue for counterplans which lower the nuclear war risk.

A trend which has recently developed is the proliferation of counterplans intended to minimize affirmative case harms or to make disadvantages unique. If a counterplan fulfills such an obviously specific and limited purpose, it should probably be judged to be germane—its relevance being intuitively obvious—even if there is no field-contextual support for such a counterplan. Or, putting it another way, if such “minor repair” type counterplans have solvency evidence then they would by definition meet the test of germaneness to the issue they address. Lacking such evidence, they usually will have no impact anyway. But if a repair is so clearly addressed to a particular harm that it requires no documentation, then its germaneness should be equally intuitive and it should presumably be allowed. This reasoning would apply only to these narrow categories of analytical counterplans.

Probably the more fundamental indictment, however, is that the policy context standard will not eliminate very many counterplans. I believe that it could have impact on some of the overly generic, trans-topical counterplans which are the most controversial. Nonetheless, I think that this is fundamentally a minimalist constraint. I believe that the balance of equities favors a relative degree of openness in terms of what counterplans should be permitted. The two standards articulated here should eliminate truly abusive counterplans; it is certainly my intention that the negative have a wide range of options remaining.

While the two standards I have just articulated are acceptable ways of limiting negative fiat, there is a third very different approach, which is in fact superior. The two standards just suggested are an attempt to strike a middle ground in the counterplan fiat debate. But it may be that debate does not need new theories so much as it does ways of avoiding theoretical disputes altogether. Many theory disputes (e.g., broad versus narrow interpretation of topics, conditionality) arise out of concerns over fairness and the particularities of the current debate format. The fiat problem arises from the ambiguities of topic wording and the lack of a specific context in which the debate is assumed to occur. Issues such as these are esoteric and have little relevance to the world beyond contest debate. Some theories may be better than others (although better and worse in this context may amount to nothing more than different tastes where debate argument is concerned), but best of all might be to resolve such issues in a non-theoretical fashion.

One way of doing this would be to clarify topic wording. Where negative fiat is concerned, there are several ways in which this could be accomplished. One way would be to write caveats into resolutions, indicating the appropriate range of alternatives. If only the status quo is considered relevant, the topic could read “Resolved: that policy X is preferable to the present system.” If the intention were to avoid change of government counterplans, topics could be written, “assuming present basic government structures, X should be done.” A second approach would be to write a kind of negative resolution. The resolution could contain two sentences, one indicating the scope of affirmative [end page 139] choices, the other the scope of negative choices. Such a negative resolution might state that “policy alternatives germane to this resolution are those which operate within present basic government structures and which could be adopted by domestic public actors.”

There are two benefits of a topic-based solution relative to any theoretical construct. The first is that theory debate is avoided. The topic itself sets the appropriate limits of negative fiat. Second, the range of comparisons permitted could change from topic to topic. Perhaps there are topics where radical and systemic alternatives should be considered. But not every resolution operates within such a context of utopian speculation. Anarchy and socialism may well be worth debating, but not every year and on every topic. I have argued throughout this article that “should” is an inherently ambiguous term. It is possible to draw inferences and set standards for its meaning, but it seems far simpler just to clarify what it does mean in terms of a given topic. Why persist in ambiguity if it can be avoided? I am certainly opposed to efforts to legislate questions of substantive theory (although for individual tournaments to experiment with theory guidelines strikes me as productive). But setting limits on the scope of discussion is something that resolutions already attempt to accomplish. Most other argument situations have a relatively clear, if implicit, framework of assumptions. For the debate resolution to define some relevant parameters of discussion (parameters binding on the negative as well as the affirmative) does not seem fundamentally different from mandating that the affirmative defend an example of the resolution. The contexts of purpose and policy which guide discussions outside of academic debate are less clearly present in the debate context. It thus seems reasonable that the debate community should define some of those contextual assumptions for the purposes of a particular topic.


The perception that certain counterplans are overly generic, overly utopian, and operate outside the realm of normal policy discourse is producing a backlash against the counterplan option in general. Disenchantment with particular counterplans should not, however, be allowed to generate standards which would effectively vitiate the counterplan option altogether. The approach proposed here suggests that in the area of negative fiat as on many theoretical issues there is a viable middle ground in which competing values may be balanced. For those beginning to tire of the theory wars, the pursuit of such a middle ground, derived from a pluralistic paradigm, may offer the best hope of achieving commonly accepted standards for how to evaluate debates. At least such an approach offers the hope of widening somewhat the zone of theory consensus and of leading to the awareness that our theoretical controversies are mainly differences of emphasis rather than of principle.

Roger Solt is Assistant Director of Debate, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.


Branham, R. (1979). The counterplan as disadvantage. Speaker and Gavel, 76, 61-66.

Branham, R. (1989). Roads not taken: Counterplans and opportunity costs. Argumentation and Advocacy (in press).

Isaacson, T. & Branham, R. (1980). Policy fiat: Theoretical battleground of the eighties. Speaker and Gavel, 77, 84–91.

Perkins, D. (1989). Counterplans and paradigms. Argumentation and Advocacy 25, This issue.

Snider, A. C. (1982). Fantasy as Reality: Fiat power in academic debate. Paper given at the annual meeting of the Central States Speech Association Convention, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Ulrich, W. (1979). The agent in argument: Toward a theory of fiat. Paper given at the annual meeting of the Central States Speech Association Convention, St. Louis, Missouri.

Ulrich, W. (1981). The judge as an agent of action: Limitations on fiat power. Paper given at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, Anaheim, California.

One thought on “Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Solt on Types of Counterplans and Constraints on Negative Fiat

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