Monash Association of Debaters

Douglas Cochran

Liberal Argument and It's Discontents

About the author:

Douglas Cochran is an LLM student at Cambridge University. He has
Undergraduate degrees from Cambridge in Law, and from St Andrews in International
Relations and Economics.

As a debater Doug is a twice World Semi Finalist, a European Finalist. He has judged the grand
final of Worlds, and served as a deputy chief adjudicator of the 2010 European Championships.

Most university debaters on IONA1 could probably be identified as ‘liberals’.
Inter-varsity debating in these Isles tends to attract and reward a certain type of
worldview2 consistent with the traditions of liberal thought. This is not to
suggest that all debaters are themselves liberals (some are religious
conservatives, for example), or that illiberal arguments are de facto inadmissible;
but liberal ideals shape the default assumptions that most debaters and judges
apply. Challenging the liberal paradigm is possible, but difficult. Debaters
aiming to garner the maximum number of points are generally better served to
‘play it safe’ and offer liberal arguments.

There is undoubtedly something to be regretted about the near-monopoly that
liberal discourse holds over contemporary debating. If all teams readily agree
(implicitly or explicitly) to adopt a liberal perspective, debates risk some of their
potential richness and complexity. Worse still, constant reaffirmation, rather
than re-examination, of the basic precepts of liberal thought can serve as a
prophylactic against critically examining (and potentially adopting) illiberal
viewpoints. Inter-varsity debating in the English-speaking world thus risks
duplicating the poverty of argument seen in its contemporary politics.

This paper seeks to outline a number of alternative ideological paradigms and
their challenges to liberal hegemony. We assess their utility and limitations
within the context of Inter-varsity debating.

The liberal paradigm

Broadly speaking, the liberal debating paradigm appeals exclusively to reason, as
opposed to tradition or revelation, in defence of claims. The liberal debater
holds that individual, as opposed to people groups or ideals3, and their worlds
of conscious experience are the only possible subject matter of value. The
liberal paradigm asserts that the proper role of the state is to facilitate the
progress of individuals towards the outcomes, and experiences, that they
themselves have declared to be meaningful.

To an extent, narrowing debates to focus on the liberal paradigm is inevitable.
The topics selected by most adjudication teams will generally offer ample room
for presenting a range of alternative liberal theories. But the confines of a five
or seven minute speech rarely allow a debater to critique the prevailing
paradigm and to prove why their alternative framework demands a certain
stance on the motion4.

Furthermore, as most debaters adhere to a broadly liberal worldview, debates
held within the liberal tradition are most likely to provide arguments that are
either congruent with the participants’ existing beliefs or credible substitutes for
them. This can serve to make the experience of debating a tool for honing and
developing one’s own views, rather than simply a game of intellectual

The liberal tradition and libertarianism

If ‘liberal’ thought is the governing tradition of Inter-varsity debating, then
‘libertarianism’ must be a strong candidate for the official opposition. As with
the term ‘liberal’, use of the term ‘libertarian’ is fraught with difficulty, as it is
used to represent a diverse constellation of viewpoints5. The Anglo-American
tradition of libertarianism is perhaps the most familiar to university debaters. It
can provide an attractive intellectual toolbox for those seeking paradigmatic
challenges to liberal hegemony.

Libertarian challenges owe much of their attraction to the fact that they require
only a limited departure (and many would say no departure at all) from the
liberal tradition. Indeed, some exponents of libertarian thought6 openly
acknowledge their debts to their liberal progenitors and style themselves as the
rightful heirs to their legacy. Sharing many of the same assumptions as their
liberal counterparts and relatively well-known to the educated layperson,
libertarian arguments can be readily deployed in debates with a little or no need
to establish entirely fresh premises.

Libertarians share the liberal’s adherence to individualism and its tolerance
toward differing accounts of the good life. They break with the liberal utilitarian
tradition of Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick. To liberal utilitarians, legal orders that
afford individuals a wide range of autonomous choice are justified as they are
more likely to produce happiness, pleasure, or utility. As Gordon Scott (1991:
256) explains, "One should note that John Mill did not defend freedom of
thought and expression on the ground that man has a 'natural right' to them or
because they are intrinsically good in themselves. The argument is utilitarian;
these freedoms are useful."7

To the libertarian rights are not established because they make society a happier
place (though they may very well do that8); they are the political parallel to the
entitlements owed to each individual by dint of their personhood. When
present, a legitimate right renders null and void any discussion of social interest
or utility maximisation. Rights are to be vindicated, whatever the cost to others.

In their absolutist defence of rights, libertarians find common cause with that
branch of Kantian liberalism9 which sees rights as necessary weapons to defend
individual dignity against the encroachment of state power. Liberal defences of
absolute rights tend to emphasize the uniqueness and dignity of every person.
Individuals’ rights, properly conceived, are not subject to trade-offs against
others, because each individual is rightly viewed as an end rather than a means -
for whom do they garner utility if not for themselves? To Dostoevsky’s famous
question about the permissibility of torturing one person to purchase bliss for
the whole world, the rights-conscious liberal would reply that such an
arrangement would be unjust as a universe abounding in utility would be no
compensating advantage to the individual who is tortured. Each world of
perceptive experience created by a human life is unique, and no means yet
devised can absorb the pleasure and pain experienced by multiple persons,
because the means of weighing pleasure and pain is the individual, herself. As
such, interpersonal utility tradeoffs are impossible to justly procure.

Libertarians break decisively from liberals by their insistence that property
rights ought to be accorded the same inviolability afforded to personal rights
such as freedom of religion and bodily integrity. They argue that the
appropriation of an individual’s property is morally indistinct from seizing the
labour that she used to produce that property (slavery10). Here we have possibly
the greatest obstacle to the successful employment of libertarian analysis in
debates. The idea that taxation is a form of slavery is simply incongruent with
the intuitions of most liberal debaters.

Moreover, libertarianism is particularly vulnerable because of the absolutist
claims to property that it makes. If the worker’s wage or the capitalist’s profit is
not entirely his, his claim to it is not one of absolute right but one of many
claims to considered and weighed. Once property is recognised as the locus of
legitimate competing rights claims, then the libertarian has already lost.

Further compounding the inherent vulnerability of the libertarian position, the
structure of Inter-varsity debating generally favours those arguing against
libertarian principles. Numerous challenges to absolutist conceptions of
property rights can be mustered and deployed quickly and efficiently. For

  1. Natural resources are the common heritage of humanity.
    Nothing in our personhood gives us the right to exclusive use of
    a scarce resource.

  2. Property doesn’t do justice to generations as yet unborn, who
    have no chance to claim resources that are currently being
    monopolised by those currently living (even if they did have a
    right to them).

  3. Government protects property from outsiders and thus
    demands some share in it. Those who benefit most from state
    protection (the rich) should pay the most in taxes.

  4. Common goods (e.g. a healthy environment) will only be
    provided by a society where government controls property (at
    least to some extent).

  5. Each individual was cared for in their infancy and thus bears
    some responsibility to the society that protected him.

Clever libertarians can (and have) marshalled rebuttals to these arguments, but
the responses that libertarians give are generally more complex11 than the
challenges and less intuitive to most judges.

Thus, in a seven-minute speech, libertarian arguments are at a distinct
disadvantage; the libertarian debater must generally refute all challenges to the
absolutism of property rights in order to win the point. His critic needs only to
cheapen that claim at one vulnerable point to win. As a result, libertarianminded
debaters aiming for to break are probably best served to concentrate on
liberal arguments for free-market economics.

Fortunately, most libertarians (e.g. Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand) also supply a
range of plausible arguments as to why liberalized markets generally contribute
to human freedom and the general prosperity. Improvements to human
freedom and social welfare will generally be more persuasive as reasons for
decision to a judge than absolutism claims concerning property rights.

Classical Conservatism

If it is difficult to discern a distinctly conservative12 debating tradition, this may
be due to the fact that scholars have consistently struggled to offer an agreed
definition of what it is to be a conservative. To some thinkers of the Right,
conservatism is less a set of policies than a political disposition ‘to prefer the
tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the
unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the
convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’13 To other
conservatives, such as the disciples of Edmund Burke, conservatism consists of
defending the role of non-state associations (families, communities, religious
organizations) as necessary tools for the maintenance of social order.14
Conservatives are not, however, anarchists, and tend to see the institution of
law as a necessary complement to religious teaching, parental authority, and
community values.

Despite its innumerable variants, nearly all conservative philosophy has one
particular feature in common: it is extremely difficult to successfully employ
within the context of an Inter-varsity debate. The reasons for this are fairly
obvious; it would be difficult to imagine a debating culture that deferred to
tradition, authority, or religious revelation as reasons for decision, unless that
debating circuit was entirely composed of members who accepted one
particular tradition as authoritative (e.g. Roman Catholics). So long as Intervarsity
debating continues to be a cross-cultural phenomenon, certain liberal
precepts will probably inform the structure of argument15.

Moreover, the context of a motion will generally force the government team to
propose some sort of state action (or philosophical precept by which state
action could be informed), which creates a state-centric discourse within the
debating community. As such, though debaters are usually willing to accept that
state authority ought to be curtailed when the scale of governmental coercion
causes immense suffering, they are less willing to accept that certain spheres of
life are inherently beyond the purview societal control (e.g. parental authority
over children or intimate relationships) and therefore not the rightful subject
matter of legislation.

Thus, when conservative doctrines are employed successfully, they are usually
explained as pre-existing attitudes that ought to be respected rather than the
ideals of a utopian society. A straightforward example of this would be making
an argument for the preservation of retributive justice in the penal system on
the basis that a non-retributive penal system would excite a desire for vigilante
justice amongst the aggrieved citizenry. In other words, though it may be
difficult for debaters to argue that conservative thinking is correct, they may
have occasion to suggest that it is prevalent, and that the ability of the state to
liberalise contemporary values through legislation may be limited.

Again- and more controversially- whether or not women are inherently better
suited to care for children than men are, a society which believes that women
make better parents may be one in which women (as a result of their
upbringing) feel a stronger obligation than men to care for children and will be
under stronger social pressure than men to do so, thereby making them more
effective parents16. In short, conservative values (like any values) can often be
performative: belief in them may actually make them true.

The God that failed: Marxism’s false start

Given the alignment of many Inter-varsity debaters with the politics of the left
and their exposure to the thinking of contemporary academia, one would
expect the liberal tradition to come under scrutiny from adherents of a Marxist
point of view.

Contemporary practice, however, shows this not to be the case. Quite possibly,
many debaters are simply not equipped with a sufficiently robust knowledge of
Marxist thinking to employ such argumentation in a debate. Given the daunting
scope and theoretical complexity of Marxist thinking, those with merely a lay
interest in political philosophy may feel that even the rudiments of Marxist
criticism would be beyond them. Even if such critiques could be articulated,
debaters may fear that their arguments would do little to persuade a liberal
judging panel.

Perhaps more critical to the fate of Marxist argumentation is the fact that most
debating traditions (British Parliamentary, American Parliamentary) allow
proposition or government teams the benefit of fiat, or an absolute license to
craft the world in a manner conducive to the fulfilment of the motion. Thus, if
the motion is THB: That the USA should immediately end all military and
economic assistance to Israel, it is generally impermissible for opposition teams
to argue that the American government would be very unlikely to do such a

The rationale for such a rule is perfectly sensible. Fiat rules prevents debates
disintegrating into mere jousts over political analysis. Moreover, in a debating
culture without fiat rules, there would be very few topics that could be
guaranteed to past muster- those motions that stayed within the frontiers of
policymakers’ explicit agendas- thereby winnowing down the potential subject
matter available for debate to rather mundane questions about the optimal
distribution pattern for public services and dead peoples’ organs.

The difficulty that this creates for Marxist debaters is that much of the most
insightful Marxist analysis concerns the impossibility of achieving liberal goals,
not their undesirability, per se. Thus, many government teams will tout the
ability of certain policies to significantly reduce economic inequality or to
improve the long-term welfare of the poor. To many Marxists, the
contradictions inherent within global capitalism and the realities of class
struggle will prevent governments from adopting such egalitarian measures, but
fiat prevents them from demonstrating the veracity of their claim. As a result,
Marxist analysis is far more prevalent on the circuit than Marxist argumentation.

Many successful debaters are more than able to launch criticisms using Marxist
ideas and language, without adopting a purely Marxist critique. Thus, concepts
like ‘false consciousness’17, ‘emancipatory violence’18, or ‘alienation’ can be used
to discuss the failures of the capitalist order, even if the teams appropriating the
language of Marxism are only interesting in altering, rather than abolishing, the
capitalist order.

Nonetheless, undiluted Marxist argumentation can still have a place in the postfiat
world. Though proposition teams are allowed sufficient fiat to pass
whatever legislation they like, they are generally not permitted to claim fiat for
any subsequent actions, unless those actions can be said to be inherent to the
motion itself (e.g. the policy receiving approval from constitutional courts as
well as passing the legislature). Any other subsequent behaviours, either by the
actor named in the motion or other actors, are not given the benefit of fiat but
must be proven by the teams to be a likely consequence of the policy (e.g.
reduced US support for Israel resulting in improved relations between the US
and certain Arab states). The post-fiat world, then, is assumed to be controlled
by status quo forces, tempered only by the demonstrable effects of the motion’s
enactment. Thus, when faced with the motion THW: Allow parents full genetic
control of their children, opposition teams can argue that passing this motion
will allow wealthy, upper-class parents the ability to solidify their position of
privilege by using their superior resources to obtain the best available genetic
improvements, thereby gaining near-exclusive access to positional goods and
ensuring a self-perpetuating retrenchment of class privilege19.

Moving Forward: Thinking Inside a Bigger Box

Inter-varsity debating is likely to continue being a game played by liberal rules.
Those arguments that seem to critique liberalism generally offer another
account of liberalism, rather than an illiberal worldview. A number of reforms
to the activity, however, might help the debating community to broaden its
horizons. Adjudication teams could seek to set motions that explicitly challenge
liberal norms (eg THB Overwhelming social disgust is a sufficient reason for
the censorship of art) Motions that can be supported and opposed entirely in
liberal terms, generally, will be. To see extra-liberal thinking in action,
adjudication teams could use knockout-round motions as a means of presenting
the debating community with challenging topics that force at least one side to
substantial depart from the liberal tradition.

To some extent debating will always be a liberal activity. The values of its
participants, the norms of their political cultures, and the relatively short
timeframe given for speeches all limit the distance from liberalism that we can
expect to see on display within the confines of an Inter-varsity tournament.
Perhaps the greatest hope for exposing debaters to a variety of philosophical
viewpoints comes from the ability of Inter-varsity debating to unite an
otherwise disparate group of individuals who have expressed an interest in
explaining, clarifying, and amending their views. If the debating chamber
remains the preserve of liberal thinking, the foyer outside is an ideological noman’s-
land. But the frontier where the great advances in the community’s
thinking may yet be found.


1 Islands Of the North Atlantic: Great Britain and Ireland.

2 A similar claim could be made for university debating societies worldwide; the author’s debating
experience have been largely confined to the UK and Ireland.

3 This is not to say that the liberal debater regards people groups or ideals as worthless, merely that she is
reluctant to ascribe value to them as such, and analyses them through the lens of personal experiences.

4 See Noam Chomskey’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) for a
full discussion of the way time limits lead to reproduction of dominant paradigms

5 Anarcho-syndicalists, and other anti-statists of the radical left will often embrace the label ‘libertarianism’,
as well. For the sake of clarity, this article will not refer to such thought as ‘libertarian’.

6 see Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962). He eschewed the label of ‘libertarian’, preferring
to self-identify as a ‘liberal’ or a ‘classical liberal.’

7 H. Scott Gordon The History and Philosophy of Social Science (1991)

8 Some who self-identify as libertarians do so exclusively on the perceived utilitarian merits of a society
that offers a robust defence of individual rights and a laissez- economic order. I would prefer to classify
such persons as ‘free market liberals’ on the basis that their methodology is liberal rather than utilitarian,
they simply have different empirical beliefs about the benefits of the free market economy to many of
their fellow liberals.

9 Endorsed by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, among others.

10 See Nozik (1974) Anarchy, State and Utopia

11 See the work Michael Otsuka’s (2003) Libertarianism with Inequality for a thoughtful defence of leftlibertarianism
against its liberal critics.

12 As distinct from libertarianism or market conservatism more generally. Conservatives of the Burkean
tradition generally allow some role for relative free markets as a means of generating wealth, but they are
often suspicious of the market’s impact on social relationships and traditional allegiances.

13 Oakeshott, Michael (1956) ‘On Being a Conservative’ in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays
(London: Methuen,1962),

14 Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism offers an accessible account of the Burkean tradition.

15 See Eusebius McKaiser’s article in vol. 7 of the MDR on the fate of conservative
argumentation for more on this theme.

16 Obviously, there are very strong reasons not to perpetuate gender norms which see childcare
as exclusively ‘women’s work’, even if this leads to short-term gains in the quality of childcare

17 The theory that material and institutional processes in capitalists society are misleading; representations
of the social relations systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination and exploitation. For
instance, a Marxist analysis may suggest that social relations and ideology has naturalised the belief that a
women’s place is in the home. Some women may thus suffer from exploitation and subordination without
realising it.

18 Certain states of the world are taken to be pre-political and natural, hence are unchallenged by the
exploited. Violence can shatter that worldview. See Fanon’s (1962) The Wretched of the Earth for more

19 This point was successfully argued by the team in first opposition in the ESL Final of the 2009
European Debating Championships on the same motion.