Two Dogmas of Fiat by Jacob Nails

A. Introduction

Most debate resolutions concern policies[1] that do not exist in the status quo and likely will not exist in the near future, if ever. Lincoln-Douglas resolutions in recent history have included such improbable policies as banning handguns (Jan-Feb ’16), establishing a draft (Sep-Oct ’17), and eliminating plea bargaining (Jan-Feb ’18). Debaters seeking to bypass arguments about the likelihood of these policies passing might invoke fiat. A long-standing and widely accepted tenet of competitive debate, fiat is the principle that debaters need not prove that their advocacy is probable, only that it is desirable. 

The classic argument for fiat goes as follows:

(1) Justification: If the negative were allowed to contest the likelihood of the affirmative policy, the affirmative would almost never win; therefore,
(2) Conclusion: The judge should assume for the purpose of the debate that the affirmative policy will pass if they vote affirmative.

This conception of fiat extends far back into debate’s history. For example, take the following passage from a debate manual penned 25 years ago by collegiate policy debate coach David Snowball, which explains the justification for fiat:

“Fiat (from the Latin for ‘let it be done’) is a debate convention designed to focus attention on the substance of a resolution, rather than on questions of its political feasibility…Without the concept of fiat, all debate would come to a screeching halt as the negative team simply shrugged their shoulders, pointed to the inherency contention, and commented ‘well, it just ain’t gonna happen!’”[2]

I will refer to this view as the theoretical conception of fiat, as its reasoning is grounded in debate theory, i.e. that debates would be better if fiat were assumed as a rule. I take this line of thought to be the main modern view and suspect that most debaters would give a rationale for fiat along these lines, if pressed for one.  Even the Wikipedia entry on policy debate terms defines fiat in a way that mirrors the conclusion of the theoretical view:

“Fiat (Latin for ‘let it be done’) is a theoretical construct in policy debate – derived from the word should in the resolution – whereby the substance of the resolution is debated, rather than the political feasibility of enactment and enforcement of a given plan, allowing an affirmative team to ‘imagine’ a plan into being. (emphasis mine)”[3]

Anecdotally, I recall a very highly ranking debate team recently argue in a high-profile round that fiat is “extra-topical” because the additional assumption the affirmative makes about the likelihood of plan passage is not germane to the resolution itself but added by debaters. I also recently judged a round where the affirmative claimed to admit that fiat was a meaningless theoretical construct and went on to argue that embracing meaningless was good. These two examples spring to mind because explicit discussions of “fiat” were central to them, not because they challenged the prevailing consensus. Far from it—I believe these rounds are representative of a broad trend of viewing fiat as being an artificial theoretical norm.

While this view is both longstanding and widely held within the debate community, I will argue that both its justification and conclusion are mistaken. I do not mean to claim that fiat as a principle is bankrupt, merely that it is widely misunderstood. A proper conception of fiat will not fundamentally alter debate, but it will have ramifications for a few common debate arguments, some examples of which will be identified below.

B. The Justification for Fiat

According to the theoretical justification for fiat, if resolutions were debated at face value, the negative would have access to an argument so devastating that the affirmative would rarely have hope of winning. Therefore, debate rounds must adopt an extra theoretical parameter to prevent this game-breaking argument. What is this response that allegedly makes every affirmative plan untenable? In Snowball’s words: “It just ain’t gonna happen!”

On most topics, this claim will indeed be true, or at least highly likely. Resolutions tend to focus on controversial changes to the status quo, the sort of thing that hasn’t already happened and isn’t likely to happen. Exceptions exist of course, such as the Nov-Dec ’15 topic focusing on jury nullification and the Nationals ’19 topic on violent revolution, both practices that have occurred throughout history. By and large, though, the statement “It just ain’t gonna happen!” will ring true most of the time.

But why is it relevant? Why does this fact, if pointed out, make the resolution un-affirmable? The short answer is, it doesn’t. Whether a plan is likely to pass has no intrinsic bearing whatsoever on whether it ought to pass. In fact, there’s a term for assuming a connection between the two: the is-ought fallacy. An action being likely does not prove it right, and an action being unlikely does not prove it wrong. To take an example from a previous article of mine concerning fiat:[4]

“Consider the following exchange among two non-debaters:

A: ‘You should stop murdering people.’
B: ‘Well, it just ain’t gonna happen!’ “

I think it should be obvious that B’s defense would not stand up in either a court of law or of public opinion. The fact that B is unwilling to end their killing spree is no defense against the claim that they should. The exchange did not occur in a debate round, so there’s no debate theory considerations like ground or fairness to appeal to. On the theoretical account of fiat, B should be considered correct. B has presented the knock-down argument that allegedly threatens essentially all resolutions, and A doesn’t have recourse to theory arguments to dispatch it with.

And yet, nearly everyone naturally agrees that A is correct. B’s argument doesn’t sound devastating to A’s claim or even germane to the discussion. It’s simply not a defense at all. I’ve presented scenarios like these to many novice debaters who haven’t even heard of the term “fiat,” and they reach the right conclusion with ease. They are not aware of any debate convention prohibiting B’s argument; they just don’t find it persuasive, as rightly they shouldn’t—it’s the is-ought fallacy.

What I believe this example demonstrates is that fiat is not properly conceived of as a debate convention at all. The rationale does not come from debate theory—that there exists some unbeatable argument that must be bracketed off for productive debates to occur—but rather from the nature of the resolution itself. Almost all resolutions express normative statements, and such “ought” statements can’t be affirmed or negated with claims of “will” or “won’t.”

Some affirmative debaters argue that they defend the resolution but “don’t defend implementation.” The argument is rarely clearly explained, but as best I can tell they mean something along the lines of “I defend that the resolution is true, but I won’t use ‘fiat’ to cause it to pass, so the negative consequences of the resolution are irrelevant as they will never actually occur.” Insofar as the basis for fiat flows from the nature of the resolution itself, the “no implementation” view almost never makes sense. Fiat is not an optional debate convention, so the affirmative cannot opt to ignore it. A debater not defending a ‘fiated’ action simply is not defending the resolution because the large majority of resolutions are normative statements about action.

Although I find this conclusion patently obvious, very many debaters and coaches still talk about fiat, perhaps unintentionally, as if it were a theory rule akin to topicality, conditionality, or disclosure theory. Fiat is more analogous to the principle that arguments need warrants, that authors ought to be qualified, or that studies should control for potential confounding variables. All are true principles that apply to debate rounds, but they’re true by virtue of being correct principles of good argumentation in any context, not because they happen to make competitive debate events run more smoothly.

To illustrate the potential confusion from the conflation of these two types of norms, I’ve described an example of a norm that is obviously substantive in nature—the norm that disadvantages must have warranted internal links—as if it were a theoretical norm, much like many coaches and students describe fiat:

“The internal link requirement (ILR) is an important theoretical parameter. Coaches and debaters agree that the negative should be forbidden from presenting disadvantages with key internal links missing. Without this norm, all debate would come to a screeching halt. The negative could bombard the affirmative with a slew of unbeatable internal link-less disadvantages. They could cut straight to very large impacts, allowing a strategic edge in weighing. Such strategies are clearly unfair and uneducational and would become rampant without the critical norm of ILR.”

The claims in the above paragraph should strike anyone who has participated in competitive debate as downright silly. We do not currently inculcate in students the idea that lacking an internal link is a rules violation, and we don’t need to. The reason students have no incentive to skip key internal links is that such a disadvantage would be incredibly weak and logically fallacious and would lose substantively on the flow, no theory required. As a community, we could impose a redundant ILR rule on top of the existing substantive disincentives, but why add the theoretical confusion? In any situation where the theory norm fails to overlap with the substantive reasons not to skip internal links, we should be skeptical of whether it’s fulfilling its function of preserving logically sound debate. And yet that seems to be essentially what has occurred with fiat. The debate community has adopted an amorphous theoretical conception of fiat that often departs from the logical basis on which fiat rests.

C. The Conclusion of Fiat

The theoretical conception of fiat errs at a second level. Because the debate community has concocted a false threat of negative debaters winning countless ballots on flagrant violations of the is-ought fallacy, it has concocted an equally silly solution: assuming the affirmative will actually occur. The negative wins, for some reason, if it is true that the affirmative advocacy just won’t happen. Therefore, the correct remedy, according to the theoretical view, is to simply assume that the plan will in fact happen if the affirmative wins, rendering the argument moot.

No such solution is needed. The discussion of the preceding section should demonstrate the misguidedness of this way of thinking. The appropriate solution to “it just ain’t gonna happen” is not to assume, falsely, that it is gonna happen; it’s to recognize, correctly, that whether it’s gonna happen is irrelevant to whether it ought to happen. The affirmative has no burden to prove that their policy will actually pass, only that it ought to, so making a counterfactual assumption that the resolution will literally come into being is entirely superfluous. Worse still, this assumption has led to a number of deep-rooted and widespread misconceptions about the function of fiat in debate rounds.

Take for instance, the common refrain from negative debaters that “fiat is illusory,” a jargon-laden way to more efficiently say “the affirmative has falsely assumed that voting affirmative is somehow causally connected to plan passage, but it isn’t.” This argument is a strawperson. No reasonable affirmative debater should assume that any single debate round has any tangible effect on policies outside of it. Nor do they need to, as they are merely arguing about what ought to happen. The argument gains artificial traction because many affirmative debaters do view fiat as a license to pretend that the plan literally passes, at which point the “fiat is illusory” argument would cease to be a strawperson. “No, it won’t” is indeed a correct response to “the plan will pass if you vote affirmative.” Affirmatives choosing to argue that we should “role-play” as policy makers who actually have control over legislation only feed criticisms from negative debaters who find those hypotheticals unrealistic and flawed.

Why do debaters feel the need to claim that they are role-playing in the first place? Against the potential negative argument that “the plan will never happen, which means you should negate the resolution,” they seem to wrongly assume that it is the first clause that must be attacked rather than the second. Of course most resolutions will never pass. Arguing that they will or that that we ought to pretend they will is unrealistic and open to valid criticisms. But such arguments are also unnecessary because it is the second part of the argument that is false. One doesn’t need to be a policymaker to deem a policy desirable or undesirable, nor does one need to have any control over that policy’s passage at all. Any informed citizen (or non-citizen) can argue that a policy should be implemented, no matter whether it will or not.

This year’s list of potential topics includes an example that illustrates this point effectively—“Resolved: Japan ought to amend Article 9 of its constitution to allow for offensive military capabilities.” The claim that we ought to role-play as policymakers looks even sillier than normal in a non-US context. Why should American high school students pretend to be Japanese politicians? It’s a fair wager to say that no high school Lincoln-Douglas debater will ever grow up to be a member of the Japanese Diet. But the fact that no debaters will have any actual control over Japanese military policy does not prevent them from debating or reaching informed conclusions about said policies. Any person willing to do the research can learn about the pros and cons of article 9, formulate an opinion on it, and make arguments for or against it. That’s all the topic requires. If the affirmative proves that the policy ought to pass, they win. Whether it will is immaterial.

Somewhat related to criticisms of “role-playing” as the government, another criticism negatives often levy against affirmatives is that advocating for a state policy in some way involves defending the legitimacy of the state because it assumes a propensity for the state to do the right thing. Again, this argument is a strawperson, or it would be if most affirmative debaters did not spot the negative the faulty assumption on which it rests.  On the theoretical conception of fiat, the function of fiat is to allow affirmatives to suspend disbelief in the willingness of the government to pass the correct (according to the affirmative) policy—in the words of Wikipedia, to “imagine” it into being. Affirmative debaters seem to think that an intrinsic part of affirmative a political action is believing—or at least pretending to believe—that the government actually will pass the policy. And here the negative criticism gains some traction in claiming that it is unwise to make such assumptions about the government.

But as we’ve seen, the assumption that the resolutional policy has any likelihood of passing is entirely unnecessary, and the affirmative has no strong grounds for making it. The affirmative is only rendering a should judgment and taking no stance on the would. Believing that the government will never pass the desired policy is entirely compatible with the belief that it ought to. In fact, it’s hard to see how one could possibly criticize the government without making any should claims about it. Any time one offers an example of a harmful policy that they believe is wrong, they’re asserting a normative belief about state action, the same way that the affirmative is when affirming the resolution. One could hold the entirely pessimistic view that the government has a 0% chance of passing some ethical policy but still believe that it ought to. Believing that there are actions that the government ought to do but is not doing would seem to be an essential part of the belief that the government is an unethical institution, especially if those actions are ones aimed at reducing the power or scope of state authority. And merely claiming that those policies represent the right course of action in no way commits one to claiming that the state is likely to pass them or otherwise defending the state in that regard.

Of course, some policies inherently seem to involve a tacit affirmation of the existence of the government or similar institutions. Lincoln-Douglas topics have covered proposals such as universal healthcare, military conscription, and universal basic income. A helpful litmus test for identifying such topics might be asking whether “The United States ought to dissolve itself” is an advocacy that is competitive with the resolution (replacing “United States” with the relevant agent on non-US topics). Defending these policies probably relies on a notion that the government can and should play an active role in creating and enforcing policy.

But many policies—especially most of the most recent ones—point directly in the opposite direction. In the past year, topics have called on the affirmative to argue that the United States ought not provide military aid to authoritarian regimes (Jan/Feb ’19) or subsidies to fossil fuel companies (Nov/Dec ’19), that colleges ought not consider entrance exams (Sep/Oct ’19), and that states in general ought not possess nuclear arsenals (Jan/Feb ’20). It is hard to see how believing any of these statements commits one to affirming the legitimacy of the institutions being described. Quite the reverse, in fact. On these topics, it is the negative making the tacit pro-government assumptions. Claiming that it is not the case that the United States ought not provide fossil fuel subsidies commits one to thinking that US provision of subsidies is good (or at least permissible). Someone wanting to defend the radical position that all United States policies are unethical or that the United States government ought not exist must surely agree with the resolution more than its negation on these topics. The affirmative says that at least one federal policy is bad; the negative says at least one federal policy is not bad. Arguing that all policies are bad is clearly more consistent with the former position. In fact, if one debater argued that the United States ought to dissolve itself entirely, fossil fuel subsidies and all, that would strike me as a clearly topical affirmative advocacy, not an argument against affirming—it would involve the affirmative eliminating fossil fuels.

Nonetheless, I have judged or observed a staggering number of rounds where the affirmative argues against the existence of some government institution and then is accused by the negative of “defending the state.” The affirmative criticizes the government, and the negative also criticizes the government, but somehow they do not view themselves as aggressively agreeing with each other. The underlying confusion seems to rest on a misconception of what is involved in “fiating” a policy. The affirmative in these debates often makes claims about the desirability of working within oppressive structures to change them from the inside, and the negative usually takes itself to be a criticism of this sort of claim, arguing instead that it is better not to engage them at all. If the affirmative knows that the negative’s central argument is that state institutions are undesirable and that no part of the resolution requires endorsing this claim, it would seem strategically imprudent for the affirmative to insert a link for the negative where none existed by claiming that part of voting affirmative means endorsing institutions or working within them. So why do affirmatives jump to defend this claim? My best guess is that most debaters view this stance as being an inherent part of “fiating” a resolution. It isn’t.

Affirming a statement about the obligations of the government only entails taking a stance on what the government should do, not what individuals should do about the government. For example, someone who strongly believed Andrew Yang to be the best 2020 presidential candidate but also believed that Downs’ Paradox[5] provides a rational argument against voting could simultaneously think: (A) Andrew Yang ought to win the 2020 election, but (B) individuals ought not bother turning up to polls because their vote can’t swing the election, making voting a waste of time. Of course, one could also think that Andrew Yang is the best candidate and that that belief is a strong motivation for turning out to vote. The point is that a stance on the government doesn’t entail any specific belief about how individuals should relate to the government.

The same is true in resolutional contexts. One could believe that military aid to authoritarian regimes is a terrible policy that ought to be ended (the claim the affirmative was asked to make on the Jan/Feb ’19 topic) and also believe that United States military policy is unresponsive to activist demands, making publicly lobbying against it thereby unproductive. The affirmative is not tied to believing that the government should be engaged with, role-played as, or otherwise affirmed by individuals merely by arguing that one government policy is preferable to another. Returning to the murderer example, making the obvious claim that “murderers ought to stop murdering and turn themselves in” does not commit one to affirming murderers, role-playing as a murderer, or otherwise defending that the existence of murderers is desirable. Likewise, I assume a topic of “Resolved: Nazi Germany was wrong to invade Poland” would strike most as obviously correct, not obviously wrong. But if the arguments often forwarded in debate rounds are to be believed, affirming the above statement somehow implies that the Nazi government was legitimate and that individuals ought to work within it. When the agent described in the topic is more distant, I think it becomes clearer why taking a stance on the rightness or wrongness of a particular course of action implies neither of those assumptions.

Affirmative debaters seem to view themselves as tied to defending government engagement because something about the rule of “fiat” requires them to make artificial assumptions about the likelihood of government policy passing and defending this counterfactual assumption entails defending the desirability of roleplaying as a policymaker or otherwise viewing oneself as having some ability to influence state policy. And this is where the whole argument goes awry. Fiat is nothing more than the view that the is-ought fallacy is indeed a fallacy, i.e. that whether the resolution ought to be passed does not hinge on whether it is likely. Fiat does not require the affirmative to explain why the policy is likely to pass or why the affirmative debater has any influence over its passage; fiat is precisely the reason why the affirmative does not need to make such assumptions.

A lingering tension might remain for people see a surface-level contradiction in the affirmative standing up in a debate round to argue for a policy without at least taking an implicit stance that engaging in political advocacy is worthwhile. After all, is that not what they are doing? But the tension is not any deeper than surface-level. It seems unlikely that the main reason why any debater is passionately arguing for the resolution in their affirmative constructive is that they genuinely believe the resolution and want to change the hearts and minds of the judge, opponent, and spectators. Perhaps they do believe fossil fuel subsidies ought to be eliminated, but that does not explain why they are affirming the topic. After all, they will go into the next round and passionately argue against it when they are assigned to negate, and when the topic changes they will passionately argue for some other policy. Those choices would make little sense if the main goal were to genuinely persuade others of a change in policy; they would be shooting themselves in the foot in the half of all rounds where they argue against their preferred policy. When the topic is pre-assigned and the debaters argue both sides of it, there is no reason to think a debater’s arguments for their assigned side represent a genuine attempt at political advocacy.

A better explanation for why debaters affirm when affirmative and negate when negative is that they see value in debating their assigned side of the topic (because switch-side topical debate is best for procedural fairness, limited dialogue, research skills, or some other reason). Whether their belief that topical debate is the best model is correct is beside the point. The point is merely that affirming the topic when asked to does not commit one to making the assumption that the content of the topic is correct or important or that politically advocating for it (“working within the system”) is correct or worthwhile. The affirmative might just as well view the topic as a proposition that provides an equal division of ground and research for determining the better debater but otherwise have no investment in the subject matter. And if that is true (and it does seem like the most likely motivation most of the time), then the negative is wrong to assume that the affirmative’s “advocacy” of the topic in a debate round implies anything about the desirability of advocating for that policy outside of debate rounds any more than checkmating the king in chess implies assumptions about the desirability of regicide.

When the topic happens to be a non-governmental agent (e.g. the recent topic about colleges), almost every affirmative case focuses on what that agent should do. Debaters abandon any attempt to focus the debate on governmental policy. The best explanation is that debaters are not affirming resolutions about state action because they have any necessary investment in causing policies to pass but because they are invested in following the rule of topicality, whatever the topic happens to say, and the topic happens to say “Resolved: The Unites States ought to…” most of the time. If the topic focused on a non-state agent and the affirmative chose to disregard the topic and spend their speech on state-based political advocacy anyway, one might start to make some strong assumptions about the affirmative’s beliefs on the importance of political advocacy, but this trend is not one I have witnessed in debate rounds.

So, “fiat” means nothing more than ignoring the likelihood of policy passage (because it is irrelevant to the truth of the topic). Making a counterfactual assumption that a vote for the affirmative in some way leads to a change in policy is in no way necessary for meaningful debate on the topic. “Fiating” a policy means nothing more than acknowledging that the topic is a normative statement, not a descriptive one. The topic generally does not posit that institutions are good, nor does defending its truth in a competitive debate round entail the belief that working within institutions is good. Affirmative debaters who claim to “role-play” as policymakers actually changing policy are making more assumptions than they need to in order to affirm the resolution. It is my view that such arguments inadvertently bolster negative criticisms of state action by filling in the link that was formerly missing: that there is some intrinsic connection between affirming the topic and affirming the desirability of engagement with the government. Against an affirmative debater who does not make such superfluous assumptions, such criticisms miss the mark as they neither disprove the topic nor any necessary assumption the opponent makes by affirming it.

D. Conclusion

I will conclude by spelling out my view of fiat and its relationship to the topic more explicitly. Fiat is not a convention invented by debaters to improve the quality of rounds in the way that “conditionality,” for example, is an artificial assumption meant to improve the stability of negative advocacy for the purposes of debate despite having no innate logical basis. Fiat is merely helpful debate jargon for describing an antecedently-existing principle of argumentation, in the same way that “uniqueness” is nothing more than helpful debate jargon for describing an argument that would make equal sense outside of debate rounds and without the jargon (that for an impact that will occur equally regardless of the course of action is not offense for or against the action). Fiat is purely a substantive matter and need not be anything more. In contrast to the theoretical view, I would summarize the substantive view as follows:

(1) Justification: The debate topic is a normative statement (generally, an ought or should) rather than a statement of fact; therefore,

(2) Conclusion: It is not relevant whether the affirmative policy is likely to pass, only whether it ought to.

“Imagining” the affirmative advocacy into being might be a helpful thought experiment for debaters wanting to more clearly envision the impacts of both sides, but it is nothing more than that. Neither the judge or debaters needs to make any actual or counterfactual assumption that voting affirmative makes the policy more likely to occur. Voting affirmative merely acknowledges that the policy ought to be passed, whether likely or not, and thus that the affirmative has fulfilled their burden to prove the normative statement of the resolution.

[1] This article in many places references “policies” and “plans” because the main focus of a majority of topics is on governmental actions, but the same thesis will apply to any topic that makes a normative statement about an agent taking an action, whether that agent is a government or not. As I will argue, the only essential requirement for fiat to apply to a topic is that it be normative in nature, usually signified by the use of a term like ought or should.

[2] David Snowball. “Theory and Practice in Academic Debate.” A Reference Guide. Third Edition, 1994.

[3] Wikipedia. “Glossary of Policy Debate Terms.” Date Accessed: 7 November 2019.

[4] Jacob Nails. “The Scope of Fiat: A Response to O’Krent by Jacob Nails.” VBriefly. 2014.

[5] Downs’ Paradox holds that self-interested citizens have no reason to vote because the chances of one’s own ballot being the deciding vote in a national election is infinitesimally small, so essentially any drawback, however trivial, will outweigh the benefits, e.g. merely the value of time saved not heading to the polls would be larger. My point is not to endorse non-voting (or Andrew Yang for President, for that matter); the example merely represents a hypothetical set of arguments one could make.