If you’ve been in debate for any length of time, you’re probably well aware of the principle of fiat power. You’ve read about it in debate manuals, learned about it in camp, and probably even argued it in actual rounds. In fact, it’s even addressed in other Ethos articles, such as this one which gives an excellent summary or this one which explains the scope of fiat. As basic a concept as it might seem, however, I’ve noticed that many debaters still don’t seem to grasp what exactly fiat power is, or what the limitations of it are. To help dispel some of this confusion, I’ve decided to spend some time looking at what fiat is, what it can do, and perhaps most importantly, what it can’t do.
What is fiat power?
To begin, what is fiat power? Fiat is Latin for “let it be done,” and as defined by Austin Freely and David Steinberg in their book Argumentation and Debate, it is “the convention in academic policy debate that, for the sake of argument, participants may assume implementation of a reasonable policy.” Upon hearing this, there comes a key question: where in the world does this magical power come from? And this, I believe, is the source of all of our problems. Not properly understanding the principle of fiat is a result of not grasping where it has its roots.
For this reason, it is crucial to understand that fiat comes from the word “should” in the resolution. As explained by Freely and Steinberg, fiat “allows debaters to focus on the question of whether a policy should be adopted and to avoid irrelevant arguments about whether the policy would be adopted.” In policy debate, the goal is to debate the merits of a policy, and therefore any argument such as “your policy won’t be passed” is illegitimate. The question asked by the resolution is whether or not the actor should implement a policy, not whether or not they would.
What can fiat power do?
So now that we (hopefully) understand what fiat is, how can affirmative teams use it? Well, to put it simply, the affirmative can use the principle of fiat power to assume that the action in their mandate will be taken by the actor in the resolution. For example: if the resolution is that the U.S. should reform its energy policy, and your mandate is to pass a bill that bans fracking (please, no one run this as an actual case), fiat power says that you can assume the bill will make it through Congress and be signed by the president. Why? Because the resolution says that we’re debating about should, not would.
What can fiat power not do?
Finally, it’s time for the big question: what are the limitations of fiat? Can affirmatives use fiat power to make governments pass perfect policies? To answer this, we’ll look at several common fallacies and show you how to point them out to the judge.
- You can’t fiat advantages
Once again, the aff may only use fiat to assume an action is taken. They cannot assume that their plan will be 100% effective and result in the advantages that were laid out. Part of showing whether a plan should be passed is showing whether or not it would work. You can assume that your plan will be passed, but you can’t necessarily assume that it will be implemented perfectly or that it will be effective. As an example, the affirmative can fiat the creation of an agency to regulate pollution, but they can’t fiat that the agency’s monitoring will be comprehensive and effective.
- You can’t fiat a policy that isn’t specific
“The U.S. government will fix its trade policy.” What’s wrong with this mandate? There is no specific action for the actor to take, which means that there’s no proof of any effective solution, which means that the affirmative has failed its burden to prove an advantage. This may seem complex, but it’s important to understand. You will debate affirmative teams with abusive mandates, and if you don’t know how to show the judge why the mandates are abusive, you will lose those rounds.
- You can’t fiat effective enforcement
Unfortunately, there are many affirmative teams who rely on fiat power as “proof” that their enforcement will work. While it is true that the affirmative team can fiat, or “assume,” that their plan will be enforced, they cannot assume that this fiat will automatically be effective. The effectiveness of your enforcement must be proven, in the same way that your facts and harms must be proven.
As affirmative, fiat power can be a powerful argument if you understand how to wield it effectively. Personally, I would recommend that you never use the phrase “fiat power” unless the judge is very experienced. Instead, point them back to the resolution and show them that you are debating about whether or not your plan should be passed.
As negative, spotting fiat abuse can be a great way to quickly secure the ballot. If you think a mandate might be abusive, ask yourself this question: “is the affirmative team using fiat power to assume that the actor will take a specific action, and nothing else?” If the answer is no, the affirmative has failed to uphold the resolution.
Once you understand fiat power, it is your job to teach it to the judge, if necessary. I would strongly recommend that you keep Freely/Steinbergs’ definitions in your debate box just in case, they’ve come in handy for me on many different occasions. Learning debate theory and how to communicate it may not come in handy every single round, but when it does you will be more than glad that you took the time to understand it.