Editor’s Note: There are a variety of views on the issue of Alt-Actor Counterplans. Check out some of our other posts dealing with counterplans for more information.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just snap our fingers and other people would do our work for us? Or if other people/governments would just not do bad things, but only do good things that we want them to? It would be quite the utopia…except for affirmative teams in policy debate. Especially for foreign policy resolutions, many cases would not be viable since they often would just be better done by/with other people/countries. Yet, for some people, this unrealistic fantasy is how policy debate is—or at least should be. It may not always seem so blatant or obvious, but the reality is that accepting alternate-actor counterplans (also known as alternate-agent counterplans) as legitimate would likely be harmful for policy debate’s educational value and competitiveness—and the standard doesn’t really even make much logical sense. However, not many people have openly/publicly contested this theory, although I briefly mentioned it in my previous article on generic counterplans. Thus, in this article, I will be writing in more detail against the concept of alternate-actor counterplans.

Brief introduction to alternate-actor counterplans

In short, if you’ve ever heard of a 50-states counterplan—where the negative says “all 50 state governments will do this on their own”—then you have heard of an alternate-actor counterplan. Alternate-actor counterplans are any kind of counterplan which proposes that someone/something other than the affirmative’s actor do something. This technically/arguably may include “the Supreme Court should do ______ instead of having Congress do ________”—a notable scenario because both the Supreme Court and Congress fall under “the United States Federal Government.” However, the term “alternate-actor counterplan” is often used to specifically describe counterplans which use actors not specified in the resolution (for example, “the UN” or “the 50 states” instead of “the United States Federal Government”), so for simplicity’s sake, the rest of this article will just use the term “alternate-actor” counterplans to refer to actors not specified by the resolution. Lastly, just to clarify: “consult,” “negotiate,” “cooperate,” etc. counterplans (e.g. “we should file a complaint with the WTO,” “we should first consult with China to address any major/reasonable concerns they may have”) are not alternate-actor counterplans, since they still have the USFG as the actor (you just have to account for the possibility of failure/rejection).

Why not alt-actors counterplans?

Broadly speaking, alternate actors tend to fail all of the Big 3 values which I talked about in my previous article: truth/validity (i.e. logical and/or grounded in the rules), fairness, and education. To get into some of the specifics, I can provide at least 4 straightforward reasons as to why they should be rejected:

1. They can become absurd—and unfair.

This argument is fairly straightforward and intuitive: although some alternate-actor counterplans may seem fair or educational (it is still debatable), validating alternate-actor counterplans enables all kinds of clearly unfair counterplans. Take as examples:

  • “Counterplan: criminals, stop committing crimes.”
  • “Counterplan: bureaucracies, stop being wasteful.”
  • “Counterplan: dictators, stop violating rights.”

They don’t always need to be this extreme—sometimes it may be as simple as “companies, stop charging overly high prices”—but the point is clear: alternate-actor counterplans are very liable to abuse. One particular problem is that currently, there does not seem to be an established standard for what is or isn’t fair/legitimate—and in case you have heard of and are thinking of “no fiating the object,” don’t worry; I will discuss that later on.

2. They just logically do not make sense.

The simplest, most common-sense, and arguably most educational way to frame a policy debate round is that it should be about “what should we, the [actor in the resolution], do?” Thus, saying “[Alternate actor] should do Y instead of us doing X” doesn’t matter, because we aren’t the alternate actor; we are the USFG (or just “the United States”). We shouldn’t be debating as if “we are God” or “the Illuminati”.

To get a bit more complicated/technical, the basic premise of counterplans is this: “doing X causes us to miss out on the opportunity to do Y instead, and Y is better overall.” However, with alt-actor counterplans in particular, an affirmative can deny the counterplan’s uniqueness by saying: “We agree; it would be better for [alternate agent] to do Y. But they aren’t doing that. Thus, presuming that they won’t change—just like we presume the world cannot or will not magically fix itself—we should debate the merits of this policy as if the world will continue on its current path unless we pass our plan.” (Admittedly, this line of reasoning may undermine the logical validity of all counterplans, but I contest that most “normal” counterplans are justified since they typically uphold the other Big 3 values: fairness and education).

3. It undermines the educational purpose of deliberative discourse.

As suggested in the previous sub-section, deliberation in the real world is based on ideas of “what should I/we do?” Thus, allowing alt-actor counterplans engage in the wrong kind of mindset for learning about decision making in the real world. If you are a business executive, you can’t just tell the company board, “Instead of increasing our spending on ads, we thought that it would be better for our competitor to just stop sinking money on commercials in this wasteful, misleading advertisement war”; if you are an army commander, you can’t say “instead of attacking with our current forces/equipment, we think it would be better for the air force to reconsider their decision not to provide air support” (of course, making the request is a valid course of action, but the assumption is that they will not change their decision). These kinds of assumptions about who you can control are plainly unrealistic; it’s not educational to ignore your own limitations or weaknesses by magically using other actors.

To be fair, the idea of controlling the federal government is a bit of a stretch, but it is very arguably more coherent/singular than things like “the 50 states” or “the UN” (with all its member countries). Additionally, “the USFG” as an actor is more in line with how we conceive of policy change at least in the US: people tend to think in terms of federal government change rather than some improbable hypothetical of all 50 states convening to do something.

4. It can provide too much ground against affirmative—while also distracting from the substance of the debate.

Validating this kind of counterplan would increase the amount of generic counterplans. Generic alt-actor counterplans typically aren’t good for debate, because they often lead to shallower debates, focusing on the small issue of “who should do this” rather than issues like whether the problem is inherent or significant, whether the plan solves or has overwhelming disadvantages, whether there is a better plan, etc. In other words, it encourages less depth/work for negatives, since they may be able to more commonly get by on flexible (flimsy) generics (and speaking ability), whereas affirmatives will have to prepare against generic strategies more frequently—especially when the plan deals with foreign policy (since there can be a lot of regional organizations).