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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Big Ideas #1 - Freedom vs Security

This week we’re going to look at our first Big Idea. Big Ideas are the fundamental issues which lie deep below debate motions. If you can understand what Big Ideas are and how they work, you will see the motion in a new way, and you will also be able to take control of the debate and steer it in a way that favours your side. Big Ideas are particularly important in defining the motion and identifying the point of clash.

Our first Big Idea is Freedom vs Security. These are two opposite values, at opposite ends of a line. Think of them as being like two teams at different ends of a tug of war. Sometimes the rope pulls one way; sometimes it pulls the other. Your job as a debater is to decide which end of the rope your side of the motion lies on, and to keep pulling in that direction.

What is the difference between Freedom and Security?

If you value Freedom above all, you think people should be allowed to make their own choices, but should also accept the consequences of those choices. You accept that there is a risk in this approach. People might make bad choices, which might damage them, and might also damage others, but you believe that this is a risk worth taking, because it is more important to be free than to be safe. You might also argue that freedom works better than security, because people tend to make better choices when they have ownership of those choices and the consequences.

If you value Security above all, you think people’s choices should be regulated to protect them and others. You accept that this means sacrificing some freedom, but you believe that this is a worthwhile sacrifice in order to protect individuals and society at large. You are likely to believe that security works better than freedom, because too much freedom tends to lead to chaos and injustice, with the strong ruling over the weak.

How can you apply this Big Idea to analysing a motion?

The first thing to say is that not all Big Ideas apply to all motions. The Freedom vs Security Big Idea applies best to motions which are about whether people’s behaviour should be controlled or not.

Here are some motions it works well with, and how to apply it:

1. This house would legalise drugs

Freedom sides with the proposition; Security sides with the opposition.

Freedom says:

  • People should decide whether to harm themselves with drugs or not; it is a private decision, and not the business of the government. (Freedom is more valuable than Security) 
  • People are going to take drugs anyway. By making it illegal, you create crime and criminal gangs. (Freedom works better than Security).

Security says:

  • People are likely to take drugs, but at least making them illegal makes it less likely and thus minimises the harm. (Security protects people.)
  • The free taking of drugs will be disastrous for health and productivity. (Security works better than Freedom.)

2. This house would ban hate speech

Freedom sides with the opposition; Security sides with the proposition.

Freedom says:

  • Free and open debate is an essential part of a healthy society. The risk of someone being offended is the price we pay for an open society. (Freedom is more valuable than Security.)
  • Hate is better challenged in open debate than by being driven underground, allowing haters to present themselves as martyrs. (Freedom works better than Security.)

Security says:

  • A healthy society is one where mutual respect is practised. This requires some censorship of unacceptable views. (Security is more valuable than Freedom.)
  • By enshrining mutually respectful speech in the law, you will make people behave more respectfully. (Security works better than Freedom.)

3. This house would impose a 20 mph limit in cities.

Freedom sides with the opposition; Security sides with the proposition.

Freedom says:
  • Provided people drive safely, they should be allowed to drive at whatever speed they like. (Freedom is more valuable than Security.)
  • Having a low speed limit will make drivers angry and frustrated and therefore likely to drive more dangerously. (Security works worse than Freedom.)

Security says:

  • Keeping the roads safe, and cities less polluted, is more important than letting drivers have their way. (Security is more valuable than Freedom.)
  • The speed limit may encourage more people to give up their cars and walk or cycle instead, which will make for a healthier and greener city. (Security works better than Freedom.)

You get the picture. Once you start seeing motions through the lens of a Big Idea, you can analyse them much more effectively and create better arguments.

You should also keep Big Ideas in mind throughout the debate, by constantly pulling the rope of the discussion back towards your end of the clash. If you’re on the side of Freedom, keep attacking the other side for being restrictive and for closing down options, while talking up all the liberating possibilities Freedom will bring. If you’re on the side of Security, keep reminding the audience of the dangers the other side’s proposals will bring, while talking up the safety and efficiency of your side.

And which is better, Freedom or Security? Well, that’s a matter for debate …


  1. The other great thing about Big Ideas is once you can identify a few of them, it becomes much easier to generate arguments on behalf of all kinds of motions that, at first blush, may not seem all that similar. We recently debated "Implement Open Borders" which clearly involves a Freedom vs. Security Big Idea, but a topic like "US Citizens should be required to complete one year of National Service" may also lend it self to a Freedom vs. Security clash. Once you have an arsenal of 3 or 4 or more Big Ideas, it become much easier to prepare your cases, even in a limited amount of time.

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