An Argument Against the States CP

In this article I’d like to expand on an argument made by JP Lacy in 2009[1]:

There is no entity with the power to decide between state & federal action…. Why do we need to get further into educational or fairness concerns? The choice posed by the counterplan is silly because no entity has the power to choose between the plan and the counterplan. That is the real damage done by the states counterplan: Voting negative rejects the plan for a reason nobody should consider.

I find this argument compelling, but if you don’t, consider the following analogy.

Suppose you are a security guard working the night-shift at an art museum. You realize a disgruntled co-worker is wandering around, and to your dismay, punching painting after painting. You could run up to your co-worker and tackle them, but that would certainly damage the next painting. In an ideal world, your co-worker would stop their rampage on their own. But based on their aggressive demeanor, you figure this is unlikely. So the choice is yours: tackle your co-worker (and definitely cause more harm) or do nothing at all with the hope that your co-worker will abort their rampage on their own volition.

It seems pretty compelling that you should take matters into your own hands. While it’d be ideal for your co-worker to stop their rampage on their own, you have little to no confidence that they will, and so you still have a moral obligation to stop the rampage.

Now consider the States CP. The USFG sees serious harm in the status quo. It would be ideal for the 50 states to ban handguns instead of the federal government, but keep in mind, many of these 50 states openly oppose any gun control whatsoever, let alone a handgun ban. Moreover, it’s sheer fantasy to suppose all 50 states would act in unison. In sum, the ideal outcome, whereby the 50 states implement a handgun ban, is virtually zero.

Just as the security guard would be foolish to play the odds of not acting, the same would be true for the federal government. In both cases, there’s little to no chance that the ideal actor would actually act. And so the obligation falls back to you, the non-ideal actor. As the language here suggests, this logic applies to all alternate actor CP’s, not just the 50 States CP.[2]

Let’s consider some replies.

In 2009, Eric Morris offered the following response to JP Lacy:[3]

one actor has the ability to directly choose between Federal and State action: the debate judge. This is roughly the same number of actors who have the ability to dictate Congressional/Presidential cooperation to get a particular law passed & signed, not to mention funded, implemented, and upheld in perpetuity.

Though it may seem implied by Lacy’s language, there doesn’t actually need to be a single entity to push for the aff to happen (it may entail fiating a lot of congresspeople pass a bill, for instance). And even if it were the case that a single entity had to make the aff happen, the judge could not be that entity. The judge quite literally does not dictate congressional/presidential cooperation – the USFG does. To test whether the aff is desirable, we merely ask whether the USFG affirming would be good, putting aside the issue of whether the congressional/presidential cooperation it requires is likely.

This is distinct from the issue with the States CP. The problem here is made vivid by returning to the security guard example. The security guard can agree that the co-worker would be the ideal actor. But the security guard lacks God-like powers to force their co-worker to stop their rampage. So it’s irrelevant whether the co-worker would be the ideal actor since we’re nearly certain they won’t act.

Second, someone may reply, “Of course the neg world won’t happen, but neither will the aff world happen. The whole point of fiat is to discover the best outcome, not the most likely one.”

The point of fiat is not to figure out the best imaginable outcome – it’s to test whether we should affirm or not. When the neg fiats a counter-plan, they acquire the ability to test whether the world of the CP is good. But the neg world being preferable to the aff world isn’t enough to win. (To think otherwise is just another bizarre implication of the contrived comparing worlds paradigm.) Perms demonstrate this. If the CP ended world hunger and gave everyone a pony, it’d be an amazing world, maybe even better than the aff’s world. But until there’s a disadvantage to the aff, then there’s still every reason to affirm. Counter-plans only matter if they are opportunity costs weighty enough to make the aff advocacy undesirable. In this case, the fact that the states are so unlikely to act means there’s virtually no opportunity cost to affirming.

It looks like we’ve taken the “just imagine it would happen” view of fiat too literally. When the security guard imagines how great it’d be for their co-worker to stop their rampage on their own, the security guard doesn’t also need to believe that the chance of that happening is actually guaranteed. Of course the security guard can agree the co-worker would be the ideal actor; this just has no bearing on what to do. Fiating a States CP can only tell us it’d be good for the states to act[4]. But given that it surely won’t happen, a States CP doesn’t change the calculation of whether the USFG should act.

We should be cautious about deferring to conventions of fiat over what seems to us to be the case in the security guard example. Jacob Nails offers insight here:[5]

“I won’t,” does not refute “you should.” … with or without an agreed upon convention of fiat…. Attempting to directly justify or indict a debate practice by direct appeal to fiat puts the cart before the horse. There is no rule of fiat governing debates, over and above other considerations. It should be possible to drop the reference to debate fiat and make the same argument appealing to logic directly. After all, fiat is itself grounded in the logical principles of decision-making. If this task cannot be accomplished, the debater has most likely snuck some additional assumption into their notion of fiat that does not belong.

Let’s abandon a misguided view of fiat, not a basic intuition. When the ideal actor won’t act, the non-ideal actor must.

[1] http://cedadebate.org/pipermail/mailman/2009-April/077266.html

JP Lacy is making a variant of an argument made by Ryan Galloway. I would’ve quoted Galloway’s argument, but it’s hard for me to parse what impact Galloway is trying to garner from his argument – it could be real world education, topic literature, or consistency with a rational policy-maker paradigm.

[2] It’s important to note that I’ve assumed that the aff advantages outweigh the federalism disadvantage. If, in the original example, the only way to tackle your co-worker would involve both of you crashing through a glass wall on the twentieth story of the museum, then maybe it’s not worth saving the paintings after all. But federalism disadvantages range from bad to awful, so this isn’t a tenuous assumption. Moreover, the offense from the aff is likely conceded – after all, being able to concede aff offense is what makes a 50 states CP strategic. My hope is that fully conceded offense would win every time against a federalism disadvantage.

[3] http://cedadebate.org/pipermail/mailman/2009-April/077271.html

[4] This logic plainly does not apply to CPs that fiat the same actor as the aff. If the security guard has a third option of stopping their co-worker with a blow dart, and that causes no damage to the paintings, then the security guard shoot the blow dart. Given this option, the security guard would be wrong to tackle their co-worker. The probability of the guard shooting a blow dart is irrelevant to whether they should. The only time probability is a relevant consideration is as part of a cost-benefit analysis about whether the chance of the ideal actor acting is high enough to not act. When it’s virtually certain the alternate actor won’t act, the cost-benefit analysis is straightforward: you ensure the rampage will continue if you don’t act.

[5] vbriefly.com/2014/08/23/the-scope-of-fiat-a-response-to-okrent-by-jacob-nails/