The Safety Net: an Introduction to the 2009 Policy Debate Topic

Despite the fact that the United States was founded on the premise that "all men are created equal," our economy is built in a way that makes people very "un-equal" over time. Capitalism, the only economic system the US has ever known, creates winners and losers. That's the point. My desire for fame and fortune gives me an incentive to build a better mousetrap - new business ideas, new technology - and sell that mousetrap in the market. With everyone competing, trying best to maximize their personal gain, in aggregate we all do better off.

Of course, there are some ugly realities in this system: businesses fail when they are out-done, new technology displaces existing workers, my better mousetrap can be your undoing. For the past 70 years or so, the prevailing political philosophy suggests that we should temper the ugly effects of capitalism with a "safety net:" last-resort services for the "losers" of capitalism. Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc. are all components of the US's safety net.

This metaphor of government social services as a "safety net" is fundamental to this year's policy debate topic. Not only is it a useful rhetorical device to justify the existence of social services, it is used throughout the literature base to refer to the concept, both positively and negatively. It pervades thinking about social services.

So much, in fact, that pretty much every possible aff on the following topic can be described as attempting to do the following two things, often in combination: (1) Make the saftey net wider so that more people are protected by it or (2) Make the safety net better so that those that it does "catch" are better protected from poverty. Though there will be plenty of attempts by affirmatives to loosen this definition, "persons living in poverty in the united states" is a fairly well-defined group, and there are only so many worthwhile things that the government can do for them.

As an effect of this, there are three "advantage areas" that will cover, I'd say, about 85% of the affirmative ground on next year's topic. First of all, you have the individual-level effects of poverty - people dying of starvation, disease, or other forms of "structural violence." Affirmatives will claim that these deaths are easily preventable with more money, so we'd be a fool not to increase spending on social services. There are also wider, societal-level effects of poverty - the relationship between poverty and crime rates, for instance, or the effects of income disparity on economic growth. Affs will argue that these societal-level effects are coming to a crisis and that we must lower poverty rates to avoid this crisis.

The final advantage area is what I'll call "philosophical" justifications (deontic, more technically speaking) for social services. Perhaps we have an obligation to provide every human being with basic necessities, or perhaps the status quo represents racist negligence of groups who are disproportionately poor. These obligations will be phrased in a bunch of different ways, but the unifying theme is that they don't depend on the consequences of social services. They come down to "We should widen the net, not because it's good for the economy (or whatever), but because it's the right thing to do."

Unfortunately, widening the net isn't free. Every dollar we spend on health care or food aid either needs to be taken from more well-off folks (in the form of taxes) or from other government programs. In case you've been living under a rock for the past year or so, it turns out that the government doesn't have piles of extra cash lying around to spend on social services. Social service spending can have beneficial effects on the economy, but these tend to be long-term. If we ruin the economy before we see the benefit, then social services would be a very poor investment. The question of what state the economy is in right now and how social services spending will effect it will be a key debate on this year's resolution.

Widening the net also has political costs. Just as our budget is constrained by a limited amount of dollars, our politicians (especially President Obama, himself an advocate of the safety net) have a limited amount of Political Capital they can use to convince congress and the public. The overarching narrative in the political press since the election is that Obama has some great opportunities for the next 4 years, but he will have to be choosy in what he decides to push. Negatives will argue that social services spending will "trade off" with other parts of the agenda. These Politics Disads are popular negative arguments every year, but this year they will be more directly addressed in the literature base, essential part of the "core of the topic."

The interesting part of the safety net metaphor is that it also feeds the philosphical arguments against the topic. Opponents of social services see a different kind of net - not a benevolent failsafe, but an ensnaring instrument of control. Thinkers from the far left and far right alike discuss the negative implications of "widening the net" and putting more people under the coercive influence of government. Government aid generally comes with many strings attached, and causes some people to become entirely dependent on the state. The safety net is essentially a compromise between capitalism and socialism, which means that purists of either economic philosophy would rather see the social net go away, either in favor of a collectivist society or a minimalist government that lets the market rule.

There's one more debate on this topic that I'd be irresponsible to ignore: the interrelationship between the Federal and State governments. The safety net is currently administered by both the national and state governments in varying levels of cooperation. The topic requires the federal government to act, which probably means taking some additional amount of control. Negatives will often advocate state-level action instead of federal action. Minnesota novices won't have to worry about the "States Counterplan" right away, but this section of the literature will filter down to the novice level through "Federalism Disads" and other arguments about the balance of power between Federal and State governments.

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