The Most Important Word in Cases

By: Young Seol, Brown University  2014

“On balance, people should not run cases that end with ‘preferable to the status quo.’ Caveat: Opp cannot countercase, tight call, or win.” — Robert Colonel, 1st Team of the Year, 3rd Speaker of the Year, Yale ‘13

There is one word that every debater should know when it comes to writing cases: “preferable.” It most commonly appears in the form “preferable to the status quo,” hereby abbreviated PSQ, and so PSQ will be the primary focus of this article. However, the same principle applies even if the status quo is not invoked, and such instances will also be discussed briefly. When the word “preferable” is used, it fundamentally changes several important aspects of the round. This article is intended to provide you with a primer on what PSQ is, when to use it on Gov, and how to beat it on Opp.

Using PSQ

The most common reason Gov teams will include PSQ in their case statements is to eliminate the possibility of countercasing. To see why, consider the case statement “Legalize all drugs.” Assuming for the moment that countercases must and need only be mutually exclusive, it would be valid (to say nothing about whether it’d be good strategically) for Opp to countercase with something like “Legalize all drugs except heroin,” since Opp’s plan specifically keeps heroin illegal while Gov’s plan legalizes it; therefore, the countercase is mutually exclusive. The round then turns into Gov arguing that a world where heroin is legal is preferable to a world where heroin is illegal, with Opp arguing the opposite. The rest of the case is the same on both sides, and it becomes irrelevant in the round.

However, if Gov were instead to run the case “It would be preferable to the status quo if all drugs were legalized,” then Opp can no longer countercase with “Legalize all drugs except heroin.” To see why, consider the three following hypothetical worlds: World A is the status quo (i.e. the world we currently live in); World B is a world where all drugs are legal; and World C is a world where all drugs except heroin are legal. No matter how brilliantly Opp argues its countercase, proving that World C is better than World B is not mutually exclusive with Gov’s case, which argues that World B is better than World A. It may very well be the case that C is better than B is better than A. When Gov uses “preferable to the status quo,” therefore, Opp is forced to defend the status quo and cannot propose countercases, since any counter-proposals would not conflict with Gov’s arguments about how the status quo specifically is worse.

Gov teams may also choose to use PSQ to remove the question of actor analysis. Going back to our example of “Legalize all drugs,” Gov may anticipate Opp teams putting lots of pressure on Gov during Points of Clarification about who the actor in the case is: is Congress legalizing the drugs? A specific Congressional leader? The President?

Gov teams may wish to sidestep such concerns entirely by using PSQ. Doing so makes it clear that the round is about a comparison between worlds and eliminates any questions about whether Gov’s case is from the perspective of any particular agent. (Particularly shrewd Opp teams may try to dispute how to compare two worlds, but it is generally accepted that such comparisons occur “on normative grounds.”)

Forcing Opp Advocacies

More generally, Gov teams may use “preferable” without invoking the status quo in general if they wish to pigeonhole Opp teams into defending a certain position. This effectively forces Opp teams to countercase with an advocacy of Gov’s choosing. For example, the case “Convicted felons always being able to vote is preferable to convicted felons never being able to vote” forces Opp to defend a world where a felony conviction strips an individual’s right to vote forever, instead of, for example, a more moderate stance where felons couldn’t vote while serving their sentence but could vote after they had finished it.

While it does not explicitly use the word “preferable,” Gov teams can also run cases of the variety “Don’t do X,” which similarly forces Opp to defend X. For example, “Israel should not have made the trade it did when it exchanged 1,000 prisoners for Galid Shalit” forces Opp to defend the specific trade that Israel made in the status quo, while Gov gets to claim all of the ground of doing the trade differently (e.g. “maybe they should have just traded political prisoners”). This is ground that normally would have been reserved for Opp via countercasing. Some judges may be sympathetic to meta-debate (also known as “theory”) arguments about why the phrasing of the case is unfair, followed by a standard Opp countercase like the one above, even if such a countercase might technically be illegal.

Gov teams can therefore use PSQ or its variants simply when they want to make a case stronger. Even so, as will be discussed later, doing so often carries with it perceptual disadvantages that weaken Gov’s position more than the addition of PSQ would strengthen it. A commonly acceptable instance PSQ can be used, however, is if Gov wants to have a debate about a policy implementation with obviously and imminently tight countercases. For example, most reform recommendations involving the death penalty can be countercased with “Abolish the death penalty.” In such cases, it is generally acceptable (i.e. has no perceptual harms) for Gov to include PSQ in case statement to facilitate a debate about novel ideas that would otherwise never be discussed in a debate round. Even so, Gov teams (particularly the MG) should be prepared to respond to theory arguments from Opp about how the usage of PSQ is unfair and warrants penalizing Gov.

Opping PSQ

With that, we can turn our attention to how to best Opp cases involving PSQ or, more generally, cases that force Opp into a particular position(s).

The most straightforward way is simply to Opp the case as Gov intended. Many Opp teams try to get too clever or tricky with their theory arguments or countercases and end up throwing a round that they could have won directly. You should always defer to Opping a case as intended whenever possible. Many judges look unfavorably upon what they perceive to be Opp attempts to “squirrel” their way out of the debate. This strategy is commonly believed to undermine the quality of the debate, meaning that even if you win, your speaker points will be lower. Returning to our “Legalize all drugs” example, who really wants to sit through a round about how good or bad heroin really is, compared to a round about drug policy writ large that could have happened if Opp had decided to play ball?

Put another way, it is almost universally more impressive if you can come up with arguments against the case in a round where Gov seems to have stacked everything against you. Doing so will earn you higher speaker points, and judges will also tend to be more amenable to theory arguments about lower burdens for Opp to win the round.

That being said, if you feel that you can’t Opp a case straight-up or that you have a legitimately interesting countercase that Gov tried to exclude with their case phrasing, you have two options.

The first is to countercase anyway, even if Gov’s case tried to corner you into a specific position. You can call the case phrasing “abusive,” tell the judge why it is, explain that you should be allowed to countercase anyway, and/or ask the judge to penalize Gov for attempting it, before beginning your countercase as usual. In that vein, if you choose to use such phrasing in a case statement as Gov, you should be prepared in the MG to defend it. A judge may sympathize, for instance, if you said “We ran ‘Legalizing all drugs would be preferable to the status quo’ because we didn’t want Opp to countercase with ‘Legalize all drugs except heroin,’ which we felt would be contrary to the spirit of this debate.”

The second option is to call the case tight. Historically, adding PSQ to a case statement had no bearing on a case’s tightness, since countercases do not make a case not tight and PSQ only served to eliminate countercases. (As such, older judges may adhere more frequently to this philosophy.) Nowadays, however, it is increasingly acceptable for Gov teams to include “alternatives” in their MG speeches to explain why the case isn’t tight.

For example, in a tight call involving the case “The IMF should have forgiven South Africa’s debt,” the MG could argue that debt restructuring was a valid and winning Opp argument, so the case isn’t tight. (Opp teams in such rounds can and should still try to argue that such alternatives are necessarily countercases, and do not make a case not tight, in addition to arguing why such arguments would not have been sufficient for them to win the round.)

However, if the case had been “It would be PSQ if the IMF had forgiven South Africa’s debt,” then it clearly would not have allowed Opp to even propose alternatives, let alone full-out countercase. As such, in a tight call, you can make theory arguments about why the case is particularly and egregiously abusive and more effectively negate MG arguments proposing alternatives as possible winning arguments.There are certain case topics where the addition of PSQ makes the case functionally tight, since the status quo is so horrendous that any minor change is bound to be an improvement. There is no exhaustive list of such topics, and any such list would naturally change over time as APDA norms and perceptions of what is “true” or “tight” vary. However, current examples of such topics to watch out for, both when casewriting and Opping, include organ donation, patent law, and campaign finance reform. While you shouldn’t instantly call cases in these topic areas tight, you should be more willing to call Gov teams out for using PSQ in these areas, and more cautious when writing such cases. It’s also important to know there’s no magic phrase that will instantly win you a round; make sure you thoroughly justify any tight calls.

There is a significant, if not necessarily widespread, belief on APDA that any Gov attempts to pigeonhole Opp into defending specific positions is unfair and abusive. Gov teams, as such, should be careful to balance their interests in making their case stronger against the perceptual harms from phrasing their cases to negate possible Opp lines of contention. Conversely, Opp teams should seek to capitalize upon their apparent disadvantages for higher speaks and lower burdens and be proficient in making theory arguments, if necessary, to steer the round away from the direction that Gov wanted.


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