Debate Economics 108: Microeconomic Foundations of Counterplan Theory

Daniel Luo | Nov 29, 2021
4 min read

If someone were to be Facebook friends with me, they would likely see my frequent pontification about the infinite nature of conditionality. While a future post will likely build upon this one to explain and consolidate that post in less quantitative language, I hope to start some of those conversations by putting the theoretical basis of a counterplan on solid ground.

Let’s start with a few restrictions. First, unlike in previous posts, I will not attempt to generalize my model to include all possible debates. For the purpose of understanding the theoretical basis of counterplans, I significantly restrict the set of debates I can model to only those where the affirmative is topical (both sides agree) and the affirmative has chosen to defend the hypothetical consequences of a plan text though some type of (un)weighted-sum utility aggregation. The restrictions of this set are basically the “straight up debates'' where the negative goes for offense germane to the affirmative plan; for further simplification, I will default to unweighted utilitarianism, though this is without loss of generality (we slightly adjust our conception of “good”).

From here, it should be uncontroversial to say a positivist could observe that an affirmative ballot signals that the aff was a good idea, and that a negative ballot signals the negation of that. Thus, the role of the negative would be to prove the affirmative was not a good idea. Working in our space, then, we must next define what it means for something to be a good idea. Here, the theory of opportunity cost is an important concept. Something is good under utilitarianism if it maximizes our sum-of-utilities function over the space of all possible feasible actions; and from that definition, an understanding of counterplans will arise.

This should be intuitive; the role of the affirmative is to prove that they are, in fact, a maximal policy; the technical nature of debate means that this is much easier to do since affirmatives do not need to win on a truth level they are a maximal action. Yet it is still useful to set a few intuitive constraints, which follow from our definition of opportunity cost. Specifically, the negative must realize an actual result decreasing our sum-of-utilities function. Absent this, there is no way to *disprove* the nonoptimality of the disad; this should jive well with the offensive-defense paradigm most judges implicitly adapt. Second, I assume that the cost must be intrinsic; that is, the reason a counterplan may disprove the optimality of this action is because no action that includes the action the affirmative has proposed is more desirable; (this is weaker than pure optimality, but intuitive given the topic constraint). This theoretical constraint justifies the basis of the permutation. 

I now defend my model as a useful heuristic. Opportunity cost is a natural space on which one ought to work. A more theoretical defense of this is that the status quo is arbitrary in some way; it defines some possible actions (e.g. the disad) but it is not a particularly relevant way to decide if something is good. For example, if an actor had two mutually exclusive actions, say, P and Q, where picking P would result in 10 dollars and Q would result in 5, (we assume our utility function is strictly increasing in money for this example), but doing nothing would yield 0 dollars, then the aff plan that says that we should pick Q would be a good idea; specifically, since there is no uniqueness argument that P would already be picked, then there would be no way for us to point out the fundamental irrationality of happily picking Q when P was an option. In this scenario, we did not actually gain 5 dollars, because we lost 5 potential dollars that we could have gained had we but thought about the entire choice set for a minute more. Picking a maximal action should feel intuitive because it is the most intuitive conception of rationality; and any theory of debate not working modulo opportunity cost is not only a boring one (no counterplans!) but also one which leads to iterated undereducation and net worse decisionmaking as debaters become habitually trained to ignore the opportunity costs of their actions. 

Lastly, I attempt to mollify a few major objections to my model by applying the above constraints to obtain some nice exclusions. I believe most reasonable judges should be relieved that what started out as a very abstract construction has led to results which endorse what they would normatively consider educational and fair debate. First, as our model assumes that the decisionmaker picks from the set of actions which are feasible to them; counterplans which do not consider the same actor prima facie are not offensive reasons to vote negative. Examples of these include private actor and international fiat. Moreover, the assumption of nonoptimality requires the realization of an actual cost to the specification of the action. This means that arguments which add extraneous components to the plan cannot be competitive under our model, excluding lazy counterplans like consult, conditions, or sunset counterplans. Combined, I think that these feasible restrictions articulate a decent cap on the counterplans most people who are averse to this abstract would bring up as objection, and hopefully highlight not only how working modulo opportunity cost is rational and incentivizes creativity by the negative, but also provides an intuitive framework to nullify those counterplans which are actively bad; on balance, a satisfying and axiomatic reconciliation of counterplan theory that motivates their argumentative syllogisms.  

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