Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Lambertson on Plans and Counterplans (from 1943)

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.

To this point, the articles in this series have been from the most prolific period of published debate scholarship: the 1970s and 1980s. But earlier eras also offer insightful articles that still hold resonance today. In this installment of the series, I will highlight a 1943 article about plans and counterplans. It is one of many interesting findings from my recent deep dive into the history of plans.

Written by Floyd W. Lambertson, a Professor of Speech at the Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), it includes an early theorization of standards for evaluating plans and counterplans. The most interesting part is that Lambertson surveyed several other debate coaches (including A. Craig Baird and Alan Nichols) and documented their perspectives on plan writing, the role of plans in debate, and the affirmative and negative burdens associated with them. This gives contemporary readers insight into the era’s “community consensus” about plans and counterplans.

Current students will recognize many similarities with the controversies that still exist today about plan specification, solvency burdens, and counterplan competition. More than two decades before the formal development of the policymaking paradigm, the basic foundation for counterplan theory as it has been understood for the last fifty years was already being developed. Most histories of the counterplan don’t start until the paradigm wars of the 1970s — until a few years ago, that’s when I thought they were first introduced — but understanding these earlier origins can provide important historical context for the counterplan theory battles of later eras.

The full text of Lambertson’s article is below.


Lambertson, F.W. “Plan and Counter-plan in a Question of Policy.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Volume 29, Issue 1, 1943, pp. 48-52.

How much of a detailed “plan in action” must an affirmative debate team present? When judging debates I have often been troubled by this problem. Especially was it true recently when we were discussing the need of a permanent union for the nations of the Western Hemisphere. The affirmative would show the evil that existed, then suggest that the plan would work and had benefits. All the time I kept asking: “What plan?” If an affirmative team refuse to tell how a union is to be formed; if they give not the slightest hint as to its method of procedure; if the best they can do is to utter the magic word “union”; how are they justified in saying that the plan (which has not been mentioned) is practicable and will result in benefits? Again I ask: “How much of a detailed plan must the affirmative present?”

This question has caused confusion among debaters, for several reasons. A ten-minute time limit does not allow for extensive detail. Also, propositions vary from year to year; the emphasis necessary to prove this year’s question might be quite misplaced with the one for next year. The forensic directors vary in their interpretation of basic theory. Take so vital a factor as the ultimate purpose of [end page 48] debate training. Is it primarily to persuade an audience, to search for truth, to indicate skill in debate, to solve a problem, or is it all of them combined? If the student is led to believe that skill in debate (with another scalp for the Old Alma Mater) is of much greater importance than the solving of a problem, then, for so-called strategic reasons, he may try to evade a discussion of the plan or its practical application.

Perhaps some of the confusion may be eliminated if we make a careful distinction in the use of terms. Often corporations hire a man whose sole duty is to formulate the policies of the company. A policy is a broad, generalized statement of a course of action; it gives no indication as to how the policy will be carried out. Somewhere else in the corporation is a planning board whose duty is to make practical application of these policies. Here we have a cleancut distinction between a policy and a plan of action. Obviously the policy may be good or bad; likewise the plan of action may be good or bad. An unsound policy does not become sound because of an effective method of putting it into practice; nor does a sound policy get the best results with a faulty plan of action. In business, as in debate, we need a policy that is sound in theory as well as a plan that will be successful in practice.

In some debates the negative can make their strongest attack by striking at the principle. Not long ago we were discussing the question: “Resolved, that the United States give aid to Britain even at the risk of war.” People were not primarily concerned with how that aid was to be given, but whether it was to be given. If the principle was sound, the application of the principle would raise no insuperable difficulties. A later debate question, however, reads: “Resolved, that the democracies should form a federation to establish and maintain the eight Churchill-Roosevelt principles.” The average citizen believes in the Federal form of government; he has seen it in action; he knows that our nation has grown in strength and stability for the past one hundred and fifty years as a result of it. Therefore, to him the principle is theoretically sound. But when we try to form the democracies of the world into a federation we are in practical difficulty at once. The how now becomes of paramount importance.

We may conclude, then, that in some debates the entire discussion will center around the principle, the philosophy involved. If the foundation stones crumble, why bother with the superstructure?

Where both teams agree that the policy is sound in principle, they still have the problem of its application in practice. Careless thinking at this point is the cause of much of our confusion. Just what are the logical steps involved in building an affirmative case? 1) An evil exists (or threatens). 2) This policy (a statement of the proposition) suggests the most effective remedy. 3) Here is how it will be worked out, its basic principles, its essential mechanisms. 4) Here is how it will remedy the present evils. 5) Here are the benefits that will result. All too frequently an affirmative team leaves out the third step and tries to make the omission less obvious by talking of the merits of the plan. By what logic can they say that a plan is “practical,” when they have failed to suggest its basic principles? Often the very desirability of a plan will be determined by its structure and method of procedure.

In order to find out what others thought concerning the need of a plan I sent out a questionnaire. One of the questions read: “In general, how much of a detailed ‘plan in action’ should the affirmative present?” (Remember that we are dealing with the second half of our problem, where the teams agree that the [end page 49] policy is sound in principle.) Here are some of the answers: [Footnote 1: I wish to thank all of those who filled out and returned the questionnaire. I regret that space will not permit all of the answers to be given.]

“I think the affirmative is obligated to present a plan sufficiently detailed to demonstrate the plan’s workability. I do not conceive that the affirmative must cover every minute detail in such a plan but I think they are under obligation to give the main outlines so that the negative team and the audience may have a chance to judge of its practicability. I realize that the answer to this question might vary considerably with different debate propositions. Perhaps in some propositions the detailed plan is not necessary at all. But in any event, if the negative demands a plan, I think the affirmative must supply it.” — R. K. Immel, University of Southern California.

“The essentials of the plan should be presented by the affirmative. That is, enough of the plan should be in evidence to guarantee that the essential mechanisms are present.” — A. T. Weaver, University of Wisconsin.

“The affirmative should present as much ‘plan in action’ as time permits. A responsible judge will take account of the time limitation and will judge according to the character of the negative attack made upon such a plan.” — A. Craig Baird, University of Iowa.

“This is a good question—and a debatable one. But from the point of view of logical force to some extent and of persuasive force to a considerable degree it is good practice for an affirmative to suggest a ‘plan of action.’ The affirmative is not required logically to set out a plan of action in detail. It meets its obligations when it sets out enough of the main details of a plan to raise a presumption that the plan will work. The affirmative does not have to prove conclusively that it will work, not unless the negative challenges the plan with the evidence that may overcome the presumption. If the negative does so, the affirmative must go further and defend its plan in detail.” — Lew Sarett, Northwestern University.

“The affirmative should present a plan sufficiently detailed to give reasonable evidence that the proposal would, if adopted, be feasible—workable.” — P. L. Soper, University of Tennessee.

“The answer here depends somewhat upon the proposal. If a satisfactory execution of the affirmative proposition is doubtful, a more detailed plan will be in order. Thus to urge the adoption of national prohibition would require a more elaborate plan than would Federal charters for interstate corporations. In the latter instance, where the project could obviously be executed, the affirmative might simply advocate the principle. With the foregoing considerations in mind, I should say that in general the affirmative need only present the broad outlines or conspicuous features of the plan.” — Alan Nichols, University of Southern California.

“With some questions, the principle is more important, and the assumption is more or less made that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’ With other questions, the principle may be agreed upon by both sides and the debate will be entirely upon plan, or method. The amount of detail furnished by the affirmative must depend upon the emphasis of the question.” — Hoyt H. Hudson, Princeton University.

These answers reflect the convergent trend of opinion.

So far we have considered chiefly the need and nature of a “plan.” But a plan that is not “practicable” would have little value, so we are led on inevitably to a consideration of this word. I find some debaters bandying it about with little regard to the meaning implied. In general what must a debater prove before he is justified in saying that his plan is practicable?

“A reasonable presumption that the principles of the plan can be worked out.” — W. Norwood Brigance, Wabash College.

“The affirmative must show that the basic principles of their plan have been successful in one form or another in previous situations. The achievement of a future is based upon some aspect of the past and present. To disregard the organic relationship of the past and present to the future is, indeed, indulging in debates of Utopia as suggested in your request for a statement.” — Frances E. Jones, Ohio State University.

“Probability that it would work; as shown by its working in some other country or period than the one under discussion, or by the working of an analogous plan in some other field of action; or by the general laws [end page 50] of human nature and by observation from experience and history.” — H. H. Hudson, Princeton University.

“The affirmative must prove that its plan does not contain defects that would render the plan unworkable, or that would cause evils as bad or worse than those for which the remedy is sought. The plan should not violate the fundamental principles of economics, political science, or human nature. Generally speaking, it should not challenge too seriously what is generally considered to be fundamental to the accepted way of life.” — A. S. Pond, Brigham Young University.

“As a matter of persuasion, they would do well to show that their plan is in accord with already accepted policies, methods, plans, practices, and tendencies.” — F.M. Rarig, University of Minnesota.

“A practical plan is one which can be put into operation by those charged with that responsibility and one which will provide for the essential elements necessary to keep it in operation. The results obtained do not affect practicability.” — Herold T. Ross, DePauw University.

“1. That the institution proposed can be brought into existence, that sentiment exists or can be created for its adoption. 2. That the underlying principles of the institution, according to the consensus of recognized authorities in the field, is sound. 3. That other institutions based upon the same principles have worked successfully.” — W. Roy Diem, Ohio Wesleyan University.

“Practicality, in a proposition of policy, involves these subissues: 1. Will the affirmative proposal remove the evils and satisfy the need demonstrated? 2. If adopted, will the affirmative proposal bring advantages, including the removal of the evils demonstrated, greater than the disadvantages resulting from abandoning the present or a similar policy and placing the affirmative proposal in operation.” — George V. Bohman, Dartmouth College.

“They must establish a reasonable assumption that there exists one or more ways of putting the proposal into operation. If pressed, either by authorities or detail, they must present sufficient reasoning or evidence to show that the proposal is not only possible but may be put into operation in such a way that the disadvantages will not outweigh the advantages. Any claim by the negative that a certain essential of the proposal cannot be accomplished because there is no known way of bringing it about calls for an answer from the affirmative which presents a tried method or a new method with a plausible likelihood of success; otherwise the affirmative have no right to claim that particular essential will produce the desired results expected. There is no use in claiming that airplanes with ten inch guns can win a battle till one shows that they can be carried.” — Brooks Quimby, Bates College.

“The affirmative should show that the action proposed is one that the appropriate authorities can successfully administer—that intelligent men could make it a go; that the reform would produce the desired results and not too many undesired ones. To show that a plan could be successfully administered does not require showing that it could be adopted, but that administrators would find in the basic law an intelligible guide to their actions, and not a vague, grant of unlimited discretion.” — H. A. Wichelns, Cornell University.

These quotations reflect the opinion of the group. Although some go further than others approximately all of them contain the same minimum essentials.

Now we come to the last factor of our study, the counter-plan. If the public is asked to make a change, it might as well have the best solution of the problem.

Just when, technically speaking, do we have an alternate plan? The members of the affirmative will do well to study this point, for what has often masqueraded under this term has proved to be merely a modification of the affirmative proposal. A counter-plan must involve a change of principle from that of the proposition. No change of principle, no counter-plan. Let us take an illustration. A group of farmers gather to talk over the building of a one-room school for their district. Someone suggests as an alternate plan that they have a two-room building. Although the size has been enlarged, practically every other fact remains the same. But now someone says: “I think our best plan is to buy a bus and take our children to the city school,” and another suggests: “Let’s get the four [end page 51] townships here to combine and build a consolidated school.” Neither of these latter suggestions can be classed as merely a modification of the original suggestion and are therefore properly called counter-plans.

Only one fighting issue remains when an alternate plan is proposed. Both sides have conceded that an evil exists. The discussion must necessarily center around the relative merits of the two plans. The negative are under obligation to show the fundamental principles and essential mechanisms of their plan just as truly as are the affirmative. Having conceded the issue of “need” they must be sure that they can show the superiority of their plan. Much of the negative case can be built around these five ideas:

  1. Specifically, what are the limitations of the affirmative plan?
  2. Specifically, what is the nature of the negative plan?
  3. How is it more workable than the affirmative plan?
  4. Why is it more desirable than the affirmative plan?
  5. How will it create fewer or less serious evils than the affirmative plan?

From the foregoing facts we may draw these conclusions: A debate proposition is a broad general statement of a remedy for some existing evil. The negative may challenge the opposition as to the theoretical soundness of their proposal. If the policy is not sound in theory, either from the standpoint of economics or politics or military science, as the case may be, the negative have halted the debate at this point and there is no need of elaborating a plan. However, if both sides admit that the affirmative policy is theoretically sound, then a plan is in order. Immel remarks that the listeners are concerned with one single question: “Would we gain more than we would lose, or would we lose more than we would gain by adopting the affirmative plan?” Obviously no person can answer that question until he knows something of the structure and working of the plan. Under the conditions stated above, the affirmative are compelled by logic to offer a plan.

Another assumption in debate is that the remedy offered in the proposition is the best solution of the evil. To this the negative do not have to agree. Sometimes a counter-plan is their best means of attack. They in turn must show the structure and workings of their plan with as great (or even greater) care than do the affirmative. Having staked their entire case on this single issue they must show the superiority of their plan to that of the affirmative or lose the debate.