Policy Debate: What About Criteria?

Back in my day, I was a big fan of standard policy case structures like Definitions > Reasons for Change > Plan > Solvency. They covered everything we needed and gave us room to sneak a lot of preemptive argumentation in. But I liked to add a little something between the definitions and the rest of the case: a policy criterion.

How Not to Run a Policy Criterion

My criteria almost always looked like this:

“Before we proceed, I’d like to offer the criterion of Economic Growth. In other words, the team that best promotes Economic Growth should win the round. Now on to the Harms.”

This is fashionable argumentation. Case writers are used to throwing in a two-sentence observation that does little more than reiterate the criterion tag. They’ll make it out of some issue in their case, like their favorite advantage. They may never mention it again.

1. Implied Net Benefits

Decision-making frameworks are very important in value and fact debate because there is no obvious way to decide the round. A value debater would say: “Judge, let me offer you a value to help you choose between Freedom and Security,” to which the judge would reply: “Thanks, I needed one! Without you, I would have no idea how to judge this round.”

But in policy debate, the judge already goes in with an implied framework that is perfectly sufficient for making a choice: Net Benefits. This means he looks at all the practical outcomes of the plan and weighs them against each other. If the final tally is positive, the affirmative wins.

When a policy debater runs a criterion, the judge’s natural question is: “Why shouldn’t I use Net Benefits?” They never hear an answer to this, because …

2. No Criterion Links

Criterion links are sub-points that explain why the judge should use the criterion. I have yet to see one run – or even implied – in a policy round. In other words, the standard criterion statement says: “Judge, throw out the paradigm you came in with. Ignore a bunch of issues that might be relevant, and do it for no reason at all.”

If you want to offer the judge a criterion, you’ve got to give him a good reason to use it. It needs to be better than “Well, it helps me win.” That’s really difficult, because:

3. Cost-Benefit Analysis Rocks

There’s rarely a good reason for the judge not to use the stock issues/net benefits to make a decision.* Running a criterion seeks to limit the available impacts of significance and solvency arguments. It says: “If anything doesn’t pertain to Economic Growth, ignore it!”

Why shouldn’t the judge take the other issues into account? That just limits the information available to him and makes it more likely that he’ll make a bad decision. For example:

Criterion: Excitement
Plan: The judge will set himself on fire and jump off a cliff.
Agency & Enforcement: The judge.
Funding: Some gas money to get to the cliff and to get the fire started. This will be provided by the judge.
Timeline: This plan will take effect immediately.

Negative: “Sounds like a horrible way to die.”

Affirmative: “That has nothing to do with the criterion, which the negative didn’t address. We achieve Excitement, so we win!”

To make the best decision, the judge should consider all factors. That means no policy criteria. Of course, no one actually uses criteria that way, because:

4. You Refute your Own Criterion

Again, the judge is supposed to ignore any impact that doesn’t flow through the criterion. But almost invariably, the team running the criterion will also run a harm or advantage that has nothing to do with it! For example:

Criterion: Sustainable Fishing Practices

Harm 1: Overfishing
Harm 2: Constitution Violated

Stop right there. This case forces the judge to choose between the criterion and harm 2. He can’t use both! And that means the strategic impact of the criterion is basically nil.

5. It’s Not a Good Strategy

To run a policy criterion, you need to run sub-points explaining why the criterion is better than Net Benefits as a way to measure the round. Frankly, I can’t think of any good arguments here for the average resolution. Then you need to restrict all your arguments to fit into the criterion. That probably means you won’t be able to run some great significance arguments you wanted to bring up.

Even if you nail the 1AC, the negative can still easily shrug your argument off with a counter-criterion of Net Benefits, effectively washing it and meaning you wasted your time at best. Policy criteria are so counter-intuitive that a judge is very unlikely to use it even if the negative never even addresses it.

The bottom line: you’re better off not running a policy criterion at all. Feel free to tell the judge a certain issue is paramount, and definitely tell the judge that some issues are more important than others, but don’t entangle yourself in half-baked theory. Just skip the criterion entirely, and if anyone runs one against you, counter with Net Benefits and a reason to prefer of Best Possible Decision.

Can you think of a resolution/criterion combo that a judge would accept? Let me know in the comments below!

*Barring a well-constructed kritik, which is a different and very advanced can of worms.