A counterplan is a component of debate theory commonly employed in the activity of parliamentary and policy debate. While some conceptions of debate theory require the negative position in a debate to defend the status quo against an affirmative position or plan, a counterplan allows the negative to defend a separate plan or an advocacy. It also allows the aff to run disadvantages against the neg.
Most forms of debate begin from some resolution or statement of advocacy. As the affirmative plan affirms the resolution in theory or at least within the sphere of its distinct existence, it is reasonable to assume that the negative team must advocate the negation of the resolution, usually either through the defense of the status quo or a counterplan distinct from the resolutional advocacy. However, in many circles, the affirmative ability to select their specific plan gives the negative justification to select another topical plan, so long it is 'competitive' with the plan. Advocates of this view, which has become increasingly popular in national circuit high school debate, believe that once the affirmative selects its specific plan so long as it is topical, it abandons any further tie to the resolution and cedes the remaining ground of advocacy to the negative. Moreover, they argue that if topical ground is exclusively affirmative, then the negative could be allowed to attack other potential examples of the resolution that might not be as advantageous as the affirmative plan. This conception is related to the debate paradigm and argumentation theory concept of hypothesis testing.
There is also a small subset of debate theory that asserts that only topical counterplans should be allowed. This theory is often called Plan-Plan and argues that the affirmative should have the burden to prove that its policy is the best example of the resolution. The negative should be restricted to offering topical counterplans that provide greater benefits than the plan. This theory rejects traditional formulations of competition and argues that the affirmative should be prepared to attack the counterplan alone in comparison to the plan because it falls within the accepted and predictable wording of the resolution. While this view has some aggressive adherents, it has not been exceptionally popular in most circles.
A counterplan must 'compete' with the affirmative plan in order to be considered a reason to reject the affirmative. Although competition is a difficult and controversial theoretical concept, it is most often defined as the following: The counterplan must be superior (and not equal) to both the plan and any possible combination of the plan and counterplan. A plan and counterplan that are labelled mutually exclusive are structurally competitive in totality, meaning that the two plan actions are contradictory and could not logically coexist. Tests of competition in terms of potential combinations of plan and counterplan are called permutations, or perms in debate slang. The most common form of permutation and the immediate test of competition is the "Do Both" permutation, testing the total combination of the plan and counterplan in comparison to the counterplan alone.
There are two types of permutation that are especially controversial:
- Severance permutations—Severance permutations attempt to do part of the plan and all or part of the counterplan and thus "sever" out of part of the plan.
- Intrinsicness permutations—Intrinsicness permutations attempt to do all of the plan, all or part of the counterplan, and something in neither the plan nor the counterplan. Their rationale is that the counterplan is not intrinsically competitive with the plan because the added actions make it possible to achieve the benefits of both the plan and the counterplan.
However, there are two different theories to evaluate what constitutes severance and intrinsicness—textual competition and functional competition, also sometimes called mechanical competition. Textual competition theory states that the counterplan may not textually be plan plus; put another way: a legitimate permutation may combine the texts of the plan and the counterplan. For example if the plan text was "Pass the farm bill" and the counterplan text was "Don't pass the farm bill" the affirmative would be permitted to say: "permutation: do the counterplan" on the grounds that it was textually plan plus. The fact that "ban the plan" is not on face competitive is one of the main arguments against textual competition, although its proponents claim that such counterplans could be rephrased to be textually competitive.
Functional competition evaluates the function of the plan and counterplan rather than their text. For example, perming the "ban the plan" counterplan would constitute functional severance even though it does not constitute textual severance.
Functional and textual competition govern how severance and intrinsicness are determined. For example, a logical permutation is textually but not functionally intrinsic because it includes something which is logically but not textually included in the counterplan. Additionally, there are also permutations which are functionally but not textually intrinsic. For example, textually permutating an agent counterplan may functionally include an element of cooperation functionally in neither the plan nor the counterplan without being textually intrinsic.
Likewise, permuting the "ban the plan" counterplan is functionally but not textually severance because the plan does not happen in the world of the permutation even though the permutation includes both the plan and the counterplan text. Permutations which are textually but not functionally severance are rare, but possible. For example, one type of counterplan is the 'The' Word PIC, which advocates doing the Affirmative plan without the word 'the' before the phrase 'United States Federal Government.' Such a plan is textually but not functionally competitive; if the Affirmative team wins that counterplans must be both textually and functionally competitive, then they can permute this counterplan. Such a permutation would be textual but not functional severance.
As the negative gains a substantial power by having the ability to run counterplans, the affirmative naturally insists on some limitations to their use. Should the negative be able to run multiple counterplans that they can jettison at any time? Should there be any limitations on the ability of the negative to shift from advocating a counter-plan back to the status-quo or to another counter-plan or advocacy stance such as a Kritik? The counter-plan status is a set of conditions, albeit often vaguely defined in practice, that the negative grants will define its ability to advocate one or more counterplans. The affirmative will usually inquire about the counter-plan during the Cross-Examination after the 1NC or after whatever speech the counter-plan was run.
A conditional counterplan status means that negative accepts little or no limitation on its ability to advocate counterplans. Although this usually does not mean that the negative can change the text of a counterplan, it does mean that the negative believes it has the theoretical justification to abandon the advocacy of a counterplan at any point during the debate round. Many debates are won and lost on "theory" arguments, about the legitimacy of conditional counterplans or kritiks. Conditionality is now commonly accepted as legitimate in the policy debate community, but in the 1970s it was not.
Conditionality Bad Arguments
Conditionality bad is always argued by the affirmative team. If the affirmative wins conditionality is illegitimate it will usually win the entire debate round. Common arguments include claim that being able to choose which arguments to ignore and which to continue wastes their time and creates a "moving target". Simply put, the affirmative cannot know what the negative will choose to argue at the end of the round, and therefore some of the arguments they answer probably will not continue to the end of the round. These argument falls under a "fairness" claim. Most arguments will actually be under "education" claims. Affirmatives will claim conditionality is noneducational because it allows negative teams to make bad or inconsistent arguments and then ignore them later. More importantly, it can put the affirmative in a position where certain arguments they make can be turned against them. For instance if the negative runs an economy disadvantage and a kritik of capitalism. The affirmative cannot say they actually help the economy because this would link them to the kritik of capitalism. They also cannot say they decrease capitalism because they would then link to the economy disadvantage.
Conditionality Good Arguments
Conditionality good is always argued by the negative team. If the negative wins conditionality is legitimate it usually means that they are allowed to advocate their conditional counterplans and/or kritiks. Common arguments will say that the affirmative has an infinite amount of time to prepare for the debate round, while the negative does not know what affirmative will be defended until the round. Negatives also make the claim that fairness arguments cannot be evaluated because there will always be some amount of unfairness in debate. To answer education arguments, negative teams will claim that conditionality is real world, because policy makers often decide between more than two options. They may also argue that all the negative has to do is prove the affirmative's plan is a bad idea, and it does not matter how they do this. Finally, negative will often argue that even if the affirmative is correct about conditionality being bad, it is not a reason for them to lose the entire round, it is only a reason that their conditional arguments should not be voted for.
An unconditional counterplan status represents a commitment by the negative to advocate the counterplan at the end of the round. Negatives often run unconditional counterplans when they want to emphasize their confidence in their arguments or want to avoid debating theory arguments (especially on otherwise particularly abusive counterplans). There is some dispute about whether the negative can ultimately advocate the alternative vision of a Kritik if it has already run an unconditional counterplan. Also if negative chooses to argue that the affirmative is not topical in the final speech, it is rarely considered a violation of its commitment to defend the counterplan.
Originally offered as a milder form of conditionality that ruled out multiple counterplans and locked the affirmative and negative into two policy options each: the counterplan and/or the status quo for the negative; the plan and/or the permutation for the affirmative. This formulation has the benefit of avoiding the irrational decisionmaker problem of unconditionality, which would require the judge to vote for a plan that is a bad idea to avoid a counterplan that is a worse idea.
More recently, "dispositionality" has become an umbrella term for an express contract between the teams, generally clarified in 1NC cross-examination. The agreement usually entails a negative commitment to the counterplan provided that the affirmative is willing to compare it to the affirmative without making any conditional statements. The negative can be conditional if the affirmative begins it (i.e. making a permutation, thus making it conditional in that the affirmative can defend either the plan or permutation). A new form of dispositionality has also been that the negative can kick the counterplan if the affirmative straight turns the counterplan.
In practice, there is a great deal of vagueness about dispositionality (for example, what exactly constitutes a permutation?), and therefore it is important for the affirmative to clarify this as best they can. If the negative refuses to clarify, the affirmative can simply use this to indict the negative claim that it has run the counterplan fairly, perhaps on some other theory argument in the debate or on the counterplan.
Plan inclusive counterplans (PICs) enact some or all parts of the Affirmative plan. Counterplans that are 100% plan-inclusive have only shaky competition claims, usually resting on dense theory.
A delay counterplan passes the plan on a specified future date or contingent on a specified future event, claiming net benefits from short-term disadvantages (typically politics, and especially the Elections variant).
A consult counterplan has another entity (other governments, NGOs, etc.) overview, and possibly make revisions to the Affirmative plan. If the entity approves the plan, it is passed by the original actor. If it is rejected, the actor does not pass the plan. Consult counterplans generally have a net benefit of improved relations with the consulted actor or body. An example would be for the European Union to review the plan, make revisions, and have the actor follow the EU's suggestions.
An exclusionary counterplan only enacts certain parts of the Affirmative plan. The Net Benefits are based on the parts excluded. There is some dispute as to the legitimacy of Exclusion PICs - supporters say the affirmative should be prepared to defend their advocacy, while opponents say negative teams can find something wrong with any plan and that exclusion PICs are abusive.
An agent counterplan has the affirmative plan be enacted by a different actor (other governments, NGOs, the fifty states, etc.), or through cooperation with other actors (such as the European Union, or India). Net benefits are usually solvency boosts, which can include better execution, increased effectiveness, shorter timeframe, less corruption, and in the case of cooperation counterplans, increased relations with participating actors. An example would be for the fifty states to enact the plan, with the benefit being a rebalancing of federalism. Some (beginning with the 1975 Lichtman and Rohrer "A general theory of the counterplan" through Michael Korcok and Paul Strait with Brett Wallance most recently) have argued the kind of fiat involved with these counterplans is inconsistent with the logic of decision making.
A plan exclusive counterplan (PEC) does not use the affirmative plan, but still is competitive to the plan. If the affirmative plan uses the United States as an actor, an example of a PEC would be to disband the U.S. Government. This type of counterplan provides very clear competition with the affirmative plan simply because the two are mutually exclusive. The judge must choose either plan or counterplan. This kind of counterplan is favored by debaters who combine counterplans with kritiks such that the alternative of the criticism is a counterplan (e.g., countering an affirmative that increases the number of members of the United States Armed Forces with a kritik of militarism and a counterplan to disband the United States Armed Forces).
An advantage counterplan is a counterplan that only solves for one of the affirmative's advantages. The negative either has to then turn the other advantage's solvency or impact or run a disadvantage or kritik that doesn't link to the counterplan, which is the net benefit to the counterplan.
- Cheshier, David. (2001). Is the Consultation Counterplan Legitimate?. Rostrum. Retrieved December 30, 2005.
- Kerpen, Phil. (2002). The Problem of Plan-Contingent Counterplans. NDCA Newsletter. Retrieved August 4, 2006.
- Strait, L. Paul & Wallace, Brett. (2007). The scope of negative fiat and the logic of decision making. In R.K. Smith, S. Bauschard, & J.P. Lacy (Eds.), Policy Cures? Health Assistance to Africa, pp. A1-A7. http://groups.wfu.edu/debate/MiscSites/DRGArticles/2007/The%20Scope%20of%20Negative%20Fiat%20and%20the%20Logic%20of%20Decision%20Making.pdf
- Strait, L. P. & Wallace, B. (2008). Academic debate as a decision-making game: Inculcating the virtue of practical wisdom. Contemporary Argumentation & Debate, 29, 1-36.