Value vs. Policy- a foundational conflict, like the one between liberty and security, or that between deontology and consequentialism (now you can probably tell which side I fall on).  While individual debaters have to rely on their experiences and feelings in order to choose which one is best for them (by the way, you should try both), clubs have to make a more difficult choice- namely which to teach to novice debaters.

Now the title of this article ought to give you a clue as to what side I fall on in this discussion.  I think clubs need to teach policy first.  It’s what I did for half a year before my partnership fell through and I had to switch to LD (which turned out to be a good decision).  But I know of many clubs (my own included) that have either decided to teach Value first or are considering it for next year.

I don’t think this is such a good idea, and the reason primarily comes down to my standard, or the thing which clubs should be striving to do for novice debaters.  You might call it a value, but that is an unhelpful word as Isaiah explains here.  I think a club should seek first and foremost to educate its novice debaters- even if that education is not the easiest thing to do.  Travis Herche’s blog post comes to the opposite conclusion as I do here, but his conclusion is based on what is most accessible to novice debaters, not necessarily which is most educational.  While LD certainly appears easier due to less necessity for evidence and shorter times, good LD rests on solid foundations best established by policy debate.

This post is not intended as a rebuttal to Travis Herche’s perspective, but as a manifesto for my own.  Policy ought to be taught first because the foundations of debate as a whole are best laid by learning the habits that policy teaches you.  Let’s look at three reasons why.

More Concrete

While Stoa value has been venturing further (thankfully!) into the world of concrete applications and real-world impacts, value can never be as concrete as policy necessarily is.  The reason is that policy is all about whether or not a plan should be passed.  It is the status quo butting heads with a new proposal.  That means that theory is far more concrete.  Instead of presenting two concepts and asking “which is more valuable?” (a question few debaters even understand the full implications of), policy asks “is this plan a good idea?”  That’s a far simpler question.  How to consider that question is also fairly well laid out.  We have basic questions like “will the plan solve the harms?” and “do the harms even exist?” that we ask in the form of stock issues.  Whether the plan is a good idea or not is sorted out in the area of Net Benefits, where advantages and disadvantages are compared head-on.  Although there are some tricky areas like topical counterplans, on the whole, policy theory can be learned quickly and easily.

But going beyond the theory, the very nature of the debate requires it to be more concrete.  The fundamental questions again illustrate this for us.  Asking about how something should be valued is a difficult question that necessarily relies on speculation, questions of moral obligations, and questions of philosophy.  Asking about whether a plan should be passed primarily rests on the one question: “Is it net beneficial?”  That means numbers, facts, and evidence are the bedrock for any policy debate.  As boring as reports of studies from the EPA may be, they are far more accessible to nearly anyone than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  This concreteness means that the plan is easier to grasp, the second disadvantage is easier to grasp, and the requirements to win are easier to grasp.

More Foundational

One thing Isaiah has pointed out in the past is that a lot of value debaters decide on cases by sitting around thinking about what they can argue and then delving into the material on the resolution only to find support for what they have already settled on running.  Coincidentally, this does not work for such people as members of think tanks, congressmen, and even your everyday businessman.  Fortunately, it is not something that one can do in policy debate.  Imagine a policy debater only looking for evidence to see if his case is a good idea after deciding to run it!  Policy requires an understanding of the topic before it can be debated.  That basically means that policy debaters have to rely on the ideas of others.  The requirement to back up what you are saying with evidence means that, most of the time, the claims you make have to be backed up by another- an expert in the topic who knows a lot more than some 17-year old kid.  (The things that teenagers invent to argue tend not to meet academic standards.)  Essentially, policy requires that you discover before you argue.  As a value debater, I can certify that that is something that value is sorely lacking.

Another foundational tool policy debate teaches you to use is warrants.  Policy requires that you prove what you say with facts and expert opinion.  In this sense policy ensures that you have to have backing for your arguments.  In value debate, especially among people who have never done policy, evidence is sorely lacking.  People will claim such things as “Without using eminent domain in World War II, we would have lost the war,” with absolutely no support.  To make that claim in a policy round could alone result in a loss.  Policy debate helps to ensure that debaters get in the habit of ensuring that arguing follows learning, not the other way around.

Assists with Style

I believe that policy debate is better for teaching debaters how to deliver speeches than value debate for a couple reasons.  The first is that policy is based on what the evidence says (as I have touched on before).  This means that a debater does not have to understand vast amounts of historical precedent or philosophy, as much as be able to research and organize evidence into a speech.  Basically, a debater can always rely on the evidence they have to make arguments.  This means that no matter how novice you are, you can be confident in the fact that what your evidence says is what your evidence says, not what you say.  (Of course you can always run into some case you’ve never heard of before, but many novice teams can evoke enough sympathy to warrant being offered a brief by the Affirmative team.)  The typical policy round is simply applying what you have learned from researching and making briefs beforehand.  The emphasis on evidence leads to debaters learning better how to be confident in their own position- precisely because it’s not their own.

The other big thing that policy does for you is teach you how to lay out a basic persuasive case.  Policy teaches you to explain a concept using real-world terms to a judge, regardless of their experience with the topic, and tell them why it needs or doesn’t need to change.  That’s where someone can learn to persuade.  Value is a more advanced form of this, requiring you to explain complicated concepts to a judge so that they can choose to value or not to value something, which is a tough-to-explain action in and of itself.  If nothing else, policy sets up the basics of persuasion in a way that value doesn’t.  Instead of focusing on ethereal concepts and undefined actions, policy debate focuses on a clear choice- whether or not a plan ought to be passed.

So that’s what I’ve got.  Clubs ought to teach policy to novices first, because of its educational value for novices over and against value.  Policy is about teaching someone to analyze the real world and the real concrete impacts of their actions.  Policy teaches to rely on others and back up your claims.  Policy teaches to be confident in your delivery and to lay out a persuasive case.  Of course, these things can and should be learned through value.  But for the reasons I’ve laid out, policy does it better than value.  In this foundational conflict, everyone needs to make their own choice.  But clubs need to set them up to make the best choice- and that means policy first.


Noah Farley is a junior in high school. He has been debating for three years, primarily in LD and Parli. He participates in both Stoa and NCFCA but doesn’t have a favorite league yet.