“Determined more”: the missing LD key

Anyone who has debated the NCFCA LD resolution has run into the same problem: what in the world is “legitimacy?” The biggest problem is that even if both teams agree to a definition of “legitimate government” they can still disagree about how to apply it. Looking for a way to get around bad wording? This is the post for you.

Resolved: A government’s legitimacy is determined more by its respect for popular sovereignty than individual rights.


…is usually defined as “conforming to high standards”, “meeting the original purpose”, “widely accepted”, or sometimes simply “good.” The problem is how do any of these allow you to clearly distinguish legitimate from illegitimate governments?

So, I was thinking about this road block and trying to find a detour in the resolution. I was walking to the fridge when the most random insight hit me. There’s a loophole! One specific word in the resolution…


I asked a simple question: is it possible to answer “is ___ more important?” without answering “what is ____?” I came up with yes. Here’s the skinny:

Something is more important that something else if it doesn’t have a substitute.

Imagine you’re baking a cake (not something I do often…) and now imagine you’re an LDer or a philosophy major and you’re into answering useless questions (like this year’s resolution). 🙂 The question is: what ingredient is MORE important to the cake?

In this scenario, we have the same problem: what do you mean by “important?” All the ingredients are important! But the one that you need least is the one that you could substitute. You don’t desperately need to get a carton of milk if you have powdered milk in the fridge. Simply put, the irreplaceable ingredient is the most important not matter what idea of “importance” you’re using!

Excited? Because I was pretty excited about this. Ok, now back to how it relates to LD…

Does popular sovereignty have an alternative?

I think that you could easily say “no” (as affirmative) by arguing the word “respect.” There’s no way to respect the “will of the people” without respecting it!

Application: before the American revolution, the English elites had the idea in their head of “virtual representation.” Namely, even though we didn’t get a voice our taxes, the mother country understood the colonists and had their best interests in mind. That seems pretty stupid, doesn’t it? Needless to say, we had a revolution over it and rejected England’s legitimacy over us.

On the other hand, the British did it right in other cases. Entirely without democratic elections, the empire created rules in Hong Kong that made it one of the most prosperous and least corrupt cities in the world. So, by pointing out the complexities of the “people’s will” (there’s more than just one), you could easily argue (as Negative) that there are ways to do what’s best for people (and what they arguable will want) without caring about popular sovereignty.

Is there an alternative to individual rights?

Yes. If you haven’t yet, every LDer needs to read Frederick Bastiat’s The Law. His idea is that if Individual Rights are the point of government, then people will gradually demand more and more rights until they start taking rights from others.

That’s why he believes in negative law. Instead of saying “you have a right to life”; the law says “you don’t have a right to murder.”[*] Debaters facing this idea on negative might say: a little nit-picky?

Perhaps. There’s some room for interpretation. Can denying someone rights be “respect for individual rights”? Does “respect” carry over the “and”? There’s some room either way. But there will still be clash! That’s what makes debate fun.

So, the whole concept of this post is that you can answer the resolution by talking about more determined and not legitimacy. Hope some of you take this idea and run with it. If you figure out how to do something with this concept, let me know in the comments. I’d love to see this idea actually become something. It might make a good affirmative (or maybe a negative…) case.

[*] Alexander Hamilton argued the same thing in the Federalist 84: “I go further, and affirm that bills of rights… are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. …Why for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”


One Response

  1. Thanks for the ideas here. I’ve been thinking through a lot of new aspects over the last few days except I can’t think of ways to shape them into a new case…

    Loved The Law. Perfectly brilliant. Bastiat’s concept of negative law may be nit-picky, but it certainly becomes more applicable in America as time goes on—almost to the point that liberty and rights are two vastly different things (of course, they were different to begin with). So many laws that are made today telling us what we can’t do are not for the preservation of our life, liberty, and property…but for the general welfare (which, granted, is often necessary in a country of 300+ million people…we can’t have every individual exercising raw natural liberty all over the place).

    Which led me to the following thought. Debaters this year are always demanding of each other in CX whether or not America is a legitimate government. Regardless of the side, this is a sticky situation. But there might be an effective way to answer that on the Negative.

    First, it might well be better to quit defining IR as “life liberty and property” and call IR what they are: rights given by legal guarantee (along those lines). Then I might define liberty and include the guarantees of “life and property” within that definition, or throw in something about natural law, etc. Finally I would look at the word respect and analyze its implications.

    As a response to the question about America’s legitimacy, I might point out that the U.S. is indeed a nation that respects individual rights—our culture is hyperactive about rights. Americans demand their rights at the drop of a coffee cup, as one author put it. But life, liberty, and property—the reason why we want rights in the first place—is fading out of the picture. Abortion: it’s all about a woman’s right to choose, but it ignores the liberty of the unborn. Eminent domain: it ignores the liberty of the landholder to keep that property, not necessarily the right.

    This may be a mountain out of a molehill and I don’t know how much it could really impact an LD case, but it’s more of an observation about the modern relationship between liberties and individual rights.

    Second observation (along the lines of the ingredients analogy): Most of us debaters assume, when we defend our sides, that if what we are defending is removed from the picture, the government is illegitimate. Not necessarily. (E.g.: Say I’m on the Aff. If res.-for-popsov out of the picture, that still doesn’t necessarily make a government illegitimate.) The resolution doesn’t say whether there are other extraneous factors that comprise a government’s legitimacy; it just asks which is the greater determinant of a government’s legitimacy.

    For instance, if we want to use math, we could say that a government’s legitimacy is determined by, say, 24% resp.-for-popsov, 23% resp.-for-IR, and 53% something extraneous. Remove res-for-popsov, and the gov. could still be legit. We’re just talking about which is the greater determinant, and we’re still being resolutional.

    Just one of my recent takes on the resolution. But that math situation could get more and more sticky so maybe it’d be best to forget it altogether. Another mountain out of a molehill.

    Oh yeah, and your point about Britain and America vs. Britain and Hong Kong is excellent. “[T]here are ways to do what’s best for people (and what they arguable will want) without caring about popular sovereignty.” The Alexander Hamilton quote could be extremely valuable in an Affirmative rebuttal. Federalist Papers = gold mine.

    Good post. You should have jumped in last minute and debated at Abilene. 😉

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