Author/Editor note (2020): I have substantially changed my views on some aspects of this–especially points under the “No case is unbeatable” section (which, in hindsight, highlights a rather unrealistic, naïve/innocent view of politics). However, I will leave it largely as it was originally posted.
The new policy resolutions are out for both leagues, so you are all probably frantically searching for the newest and greatest cases (or not, and enjoying the summer like the average person). Many of you who are researching are probably asking yourself the same question novices would ask every year in our club: “What kind of case should I choose?” (those who aren’t researching will inevitably ask it later, just more frantically). We can always explain basic concepts to them, but in this article I want to give some advice that doesn’t just apply to novices; I hope to describe to you, regardless of your experience level, something that:
- You didn’t already know or consider, and
- Can significantly help you in your case choosing.
I will be talking about “Bad Policy Drivers.”
No case is unbeatable
In my club, there was a sort of adage: there are better cases, but there are no “Unbeatable cases.” Why, you ask?
For starters, we saw it highly unlikely that one or two teenagers are going to design a better policy than the professional policy makers (at least in the less-morality/politically sensitive policy areas chosen by debate leagues); they are probably smarter than you and I. But even if by chance policy makers do make a bad policy by mistake, they had to have compelling reasons for doing so. This, combined with enough preparation on the negative side, will practically always enable the neg to create enough doubt in the plan to deny an affirmative ballot.
So how do you find a tough-to-beat case, if it requires you to outthink the professionals?
Certainly, there are instances where something causes them to make mistakes, and I will talk about some of these. But what if the trick is not about outthinking the policy makers? That is to say, What if some bad policies aren’t mistakes?
What is a Bad Policy Driver?
Abbreviated as BPD, it is an analysis of what has caused policymakers to make a bad policy (in the status quo). Simply put, it asks “Why” or “How” did this come to be, rather than just defaulting to “Well, politicians are dumb.” So, it might blame a common—but flawed—mindset, political pressures, etc. (I will further detail some common types later). In that sense, it is the cause driving inherency (so it is the cause to the cause of problems).
Now, some teams we faced would mistake this for a harm of the status quo. But in reality, the BPD isn’t actually a justification; it’s just an exploration or explanation of why the policy was put in place. Thus, it doesn’t even need to be quoted in the round; it’s usually just a good thing to identify in research.
That being said though, it can be used effectively in a round. For example:
- Creating a case theme throughout your round. With our tire tariff case, we would try to either open or close every speech by emphasizing “This [tariff] wasn’t put in place to help our economy. In fact, it was put in place with full, mathematical understanding that it wouldn’t help our economy. Rather, as the economist Milton Friedman said [insert quote here]…” and so on. This grabs the judges attention and boosts your intangible persuasion (the kind you feel, but don’t necessarily understand) which can be very important with less experienced judges.
- It can also be used as a defense against some arguments. We would use it to explain why it’s not crazy to argue that the policy makers knew the tariff would cost more jobs than it saved, and still imposed it. We would also say things like “If this tariff were to benefit our economy, it would be by complete accident, as there was no intention on the part of policy makers to make policy that benefitted the economy.
Additionally, it does get attention; most alumni/parent judges we had would raise an eyebrow when first hearing the argument. It’s usually good to make a judge think in a new way.
Otherwise, the reason to identify the BPD is because being able to find them in a certain topic (agricultural subsidies, regulations, tariffs, etc.) indicates that the current policy may be flawed. Thus, if you can find this as an affirmative, it will help you know which cases are stronger (since the status quo has a clear, identifiable reason to be failing). And when a negative asks you “Why was this policy put in place,” instead of blaming it on government being stupid, you can say “It’s because special interest groups have a disproportionately large voice in this issue, meaning they are considered more important than the general populace.”
Examples of BPDs
There could be many different types of BPDs, but I will describe three especially common types of BPDs: Flawed mindsets, flawed systems, and (the best kind) political incentives.
Under this comes a number of issues like groupthink, popular political culture (such as “Democrats/Republicans are in power”), an unwillingness or aversion to change, and other prevalent mindsets such as fear, recklessness, etc. Again, this is just a few of the possible examples.
Ultimately though, while these BPDs are better than nothing, they usually aren’t the most effective, because they still necessitate that policy makers made a mistake.
When I say system, I mean something that isn’t a person, which produces/represents policy. So for example, our antidumping system (I would argue) has a number of flaws:
- It doesn’t consider whether imposing tariffs will benefit the economy as a whole; it is fundamentally designed poorly.
- It has six members on the committee—an even number. Thus, whenever the decision to find harm in a domestic industry (which leads to a tariff imposition) is split 3–3, it automatically defaults to an affirmative finding—even when the chairman (leader) of the committee votes in the negative (as was the case in tire tariffs)!
Another flawed system might be congress itself: “a disproportionate amount of time gets spent on things of political/flashy importance, rather than practical importance (‘and that is why I affirm that we should reform our infrastructure/transportation policies’).”
Two really good examples of system BPDs are:
- Outdated systems: something that produces or influences policy was put into place in the past. At the time, it may very well have been a good policy, but it has not evolved with the times or adjusted for contingencies. A specific example of this may be court precedent in electronic surveillance law: that someone may not expect privacy in his email may have been accepted back when it was first invented, it certainly didn’t make any sense by the mid 2000’s, which is when it was practically (albeit arguably not legally) overturned by the Warshak ruling.
- When the system makes broad policy sweeps: “although it may overall produce good policy, in this instance it made a mistake.” For example: I would argue that our antidumping process systemically causes bad policy, but even if it did produce good policy on average, it would be hard to deny that some policies created by this system are not mistakes.
However, this again is not the strongest of BPD types. This is because it doesn’t explain the reason the system was put in place or hasn’t been changed already. Wouldn’t a smart policy maker have fixed that?
That’s where we turn to the greatest, most important kind of BPDs:
Political Reasons (the main kind)
These include issues where things like politics prompt the politician to make a bad policy. However, it is important to distinguish this from flawed mindsets: political reasons primarily deal with issues where the bad policies aren’t a mistake.
To best understand this, suppose that the policy maker in question is very intelligent and rational. Thus, they are always making policy that is good… at least, for themselves. Normally, the fact that they are accountable to the people means they have to make policy that is good for the people. However, in reality the public is not very good at holding them accountable in this regard. The result is that the best policy for the people no longer is the best policy for the legislator.
Here are some primary examples of this:
- Political favors, or interest group politics: This is especially prevalent in economic issues like tariffs or subsidies. The common problem is that the general public is only slightly affected by each individual bad policy, but a small interest group is usually “dependent” on that policy. The result is that the politician has incentive to make bad policy, because nobody will notice and change their votes based on the fact that they lose $4 annually due to the policy. But the interest group (e.g. unions) will be up in arms if the legislator does not “comply.” (For our tire tariff case, we actually had evidence that directly said these things)
- The opposite can be the case, where a majority disregards a minority. This isn’t as common anymore, but a clear example of this would be segregation and racism in the mid 1900’s. (More formally speaking, this problem exists because our democratic representation only counts quantity; it typically fails to represent the quality behind each vote)
- There are also populist pressures: one side is in power, and their constituents are demanding a policy that isn’t necessarily good. This leads to a politician trying to appease them, but that leads to the bad policy being imposed. So for example, a conservative/republican might face this with gun legislation: the people illogically demand that no restrictions be put on gun ownership… and I’ll just leave the issue at that 😉
These kinds of BPDs are the best because they essentially say “We agree the policy maker is not smarter than us; the policy he put in place did exactly what he wanted it to do. The problem is that the policy maker’s goals were for his own good, not for the good of the country.”
All of this being said, as a general rule of thumb I still assert that there’s no such thing as an unbeatable case; as the negative, you can always outresearch or otherwise out-prepare the aff. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good policy proposals. And when the policy proposal is actually good (that is to say, when the status quo is actually bad), it is significantly harder to beat. Thus, the primary thing to remember from all of this is that when you are doing your preliminary research, trying to decide on which case(s) you want to run, be on the lookout for BPDs. These tend to indicate you have struck case gold.