A “Second-Best” Theory of Lincoln-Douglas Debate
Article by Alex Smith
Every year, it seems that someone writes an article or makes a post claiming that the activity is in a state of theoretical crisis. Many of these arguments have made some version of the following two broad claims:

(a) “LD is too much like policy debate.” These arguments typically criticize some or all of the following: rapid delivery; the proliferation of theory debate; the deployment of “plans” or other specific advocacies that fail to “affirm the entire resolution”; the use of unrealistic and exaggerated impacts; etc.

(b) “LD is not enough like policy debate.” These arguments typically criticize some or all of the following: insufficient use of or quality of evidence; arguments framed at a very high level of abstraction; an insufficient focus on “real-world” issues or the “topic literature”; the proliferation of a priori arguments, skepticism, and other similar arguments; an excessive reliance on defense; etc.

While both of these positions have some force, neither provides a complete account of the theoretical pathologies that plague modern Lincoln-Douglas debate. Without engaging the substance of this debate too deeply, I want to suggest an alternative theory that may explain how LD is both too much like, and not enough like, policy debate.

The idea of the “second-best” is borrowed from welfare economics, and it attempts to explain a seeming paradox in optimal policy design: if the optimum state of affairs has multiple elements, the second-best state of affairs may be one that contains none of those elements, rather than one that contains only some. For instance, suppose that you believed that the Hawaiian pizza was the best kind of pizza. You may still prefer a plain, unadorned cheese pizza to either a pineapple pizza or a Canadian bacon pizza, even though the cheese pizza contains fewer of the “optimum” toppings. Similarly, even if you believed (as many do) that the oatmeal raisin cookie was the best sort of cookie, you may prefer a chocolate chip cookie or a gingersnap to an oatmeal cookie with no raisins or a raisin cookie with no oatmeal. Aside from possibly making you hungry (feel free to take a break and grab a snack), these examples capture a fundamental intuition that the different pieces of any institution – whether it be a cookie, a regulatory policy, or a style of debate – work in synergy with one another, and that the second-best option may be one that looks nothing like the first-best option.

The current state of LD is largely traceable to the failure to consider theoretical issues from a second-best perspective. LD has evolved largely by borrowing conventions and strategies from policy debate, including speed, theory arguments, etc. Although these conventions are part of the overall “package” of good policy debate, they may not be worthwhile for LD to emulate if it chooses to stay distinct from policy in other ways. For instance, one might make one of the following arguments:

Speed. Although LD is probably not as fast as policy debate, it might be too fast for its own good. In policy, there is an expectation that arguments are supported by evidence. Judges play a more active role in assessing arguments and have a higher threshold for voting on most arguments, especially “cheap shots.” Arguments usually interact in straightforward ways, and arguments like “a prioris” and “skepticism triggers” are almost unheard of. Policy debate is less line-by-line oriented and more positional, especially in the later speeches. There is probably a higher expectation of clarity from debaters. Given these structural and functional differences, it may make sense to be less tolerant of speed in LD, especially if one believes that it tends to exacerbate the excessive line-by-line focus, negative side bias, and lack of expectations regarding argument quality in LD. One might also believe that given the subject matter of LD, speed is less appropriate; because metaethics and analytical philosophy are, by their nature, more complex than most social science literature, it may be appropriate to require that those arguments be delivered at a slower pace.

Theory debate. In policy, there are strong structural incentives not to run (or at least not to go for) bad theory arguments. Judges have much higher expectations of argument quality on these issues and are less willing to vote for a theory argument that is technically mishandled. Many judges assume that theory is a reason to reject the argument, rather than the team. There is no 7:4 time skew, and there are 3 additional speeches in which arguments can be developed. Because disclosure is near-universal, debaters are both able and expected to substantively clash with their opponents’ arguments. There are probably other structural constraints, but the point is clear: theory arguments in policy assume a different background set of adjudicatory norms and structural constraints than do theory arguments in LD, and arguments that may be perfectly acceptable in policy (due to the existence of other structural checks on their viability) may prove to be unfair or harmful in LD.

I do not necessarily subscribe to either of these positions, but they illustrate an important point: even if one believes that policy is a superior form of debate, or that policy debate has advanced further on some issues than LD, it does not follow that LD would benefit by borrowing or adapting wholesale argumentative conventions from policy debate. Given its unique subject matter, resolutions, and structural features, we may believe that LD is better off developing a distinct set of argumentative, interpretive, and adjudicatory conventions from policy debate, rather than clumsily adopting and transplanting policy’s own conventions.

Policy, for all its faults, does not seem to suffer the endemic theoretical anxieties and identity crises that plague LD, largely because it has developed a relatively stable equilibrium of argumentative, interpretive, adjudicatory conventions. LD has not done so. It has borrowed piecemeal from policy debate, and in so doing may have evolved into an activity that is worse than either policy or “traditional” LD. If LD wants to remain sustainable, it needs to develop a stable equilibrium of argumentative, adjudicatory, and interpretive conventions. Even if there is disagreement on what the optimal bundle of conventions looks like, it seems clear that the current bundle – an awkward mishmash of moral philosophy and borrowed policy conventions – is unsustainable, and represents neither a first-best nor second-best vision of what the activity might become.