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Knowing the Arguments

Key Concepts

  • policy argumentation
  • democratic process
  • authority

Making public policy requires making arguments and understanding arguments. This section's reading helps you to argue a position, to critically analyze your own and other arguments, and to recognize grounds for cooperation as well as competition among arguments.

What is a policy argument?

A policy argument supports a claim that something should or should not be done. Such arguments have two main components: a claim and its support. The claim asserts what should or should not be done. Or it takes a position on a debated question. Support for the claim presents the facts, interpretations, and assumptions that lead to making that claim. The argument’s presentation should be intentionally constructed to convince others to accept the claim and to agree with the position.

Arguments are made both implicitly and explicitly. Implicit arguments are unstated elements of problem definitions. For example, to define cell phone use while driving as a public safety risk is to argue implicitly that government has a role in regulating drivers’ risky behaviors. Implicit arguments are usually not intended to deceive. They are simply the unacknowledged structures of thought within a position. Position takers should be critically aware of their implicit arguments as well as their explicit arguments. They should critically analyze positions other than their own for implicit arguments, as well.

Why argue?

In policy work, you argue to disclose what you think and what you want to accomplish. You do not argue to prove or disprove; you do not argue only for or against. The popular notion of argument as a quarrel between adversaries distorts argument’s function and significance for policy purposes. Similarly, the legal notion of argument as contestation by opposing parties is inadequate. In policy making, there are always more than two interested parties. In democratic process, you engage ideas, not adversaries. You argue to add your position to the debate and to the possibilities.

To illustrate, an undergraduate student government representative wants to change the culture at her university to discourage drug and alcohol abuse. As a dormitory resident advisor, she knows first hand that campus culture encourages recreational drug use and underage as well as binge drinking. Initially, she took the position that punitive action was called for. As a member of the Judicial Affairs subcommittee of the student assembly, she had accomplished revisions in the university judicial system to increase sanctions against drug and alcohol use as well as penalties for violations. However, the sanctions and penalties had little impact on the character of campus life. Consequently, her position has changed.

In a report that she authors for the student assembly’s Judicial Affairs subcommittee addressed to the Dean of Student Affairs, she now argues that judicial action is not enough. She cites evidence from dormitory life based on her resident advising experience. She claims that comprehensive action is needed to reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol for social interaction. She specifies needs to update university policy, to reorganize administration of campus life, and to design educational interventions. In her choice of pro­posed solutions, she has anticipated opposing arguments by other student government leaders and by some university administrators favoring either the status quo or increased sanctions and enforcement. Her purpose for arguing is to deepen the campus debate on drugs and alcohol by focusing on the central question of why campus life encourages their use.

At the same university, another undergraduate majoring in public policy studies serves as an officer of a national student association that advocates drug policy reform. In that role, she writes a policy memo to the director of a national drug control policy institute stating her association’s position on recent legislation and asking the director to rethink the institute’s support for recent amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA) of l965. [Proposals to amend typically refer to the original legislation being amended. Major acts such as the 1965 HEA are amended often over many years.] Those amendments barred students with drug-related convictions from receiving federal financial aid for education unless they undergo rehabilitation. The student leader presents the association’s opposition to the amendments on two grounds, fairness and feasibility. On fairness, she argues that reducing eligibility for aid to higher education hurts working class families and discriminates against people of color.

Regarding the discriminatory effects, she elaborates with empirical evidence showing that 95% of imprisoned drug offenders in New York state are people of color while the majority of drug users are not. She interprets this evidence as showing racial bias in drug law enforcement at the state level. On feasibility, she argues that the amendments cannot be implemented because they do not call for allocation of funds to pay for rehabilitation. She anticipates rebuttals by the director of the drug control policy institute but she does not respond to them in the policy memo. Its purpose is to represent the student association’s perspective on a current drug policy reform proposal.

What does policy argument do?

It displays the reasoning that underlies positions. In collective public deliberation, arguments disclose the universe of definitions of the problem. In practical politics, argument reveals commonalities and conflicts. These are the grounds on which a course of action can be deliberated. Commonalities among arguments can point to potential cooperation, perhaps compromise, co-sponsorship, or coalition forming. Conflicts give insight into competing interests and values that must be taken into account in negotiating a solution.

In another illustration, a farmer has applied to local government for a permit to operate a large-scale industrial farm called a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). In the rural municipality where the farmer lives, the zoning ordinance allows such operations only as a “conditional” use of land zoned for agricultural uses. “Conditional” uses require case-by-case decisions by local officials on whether to permit or not permit the use. The decision process includes a public hearing inviting residents and others to comment on the proposed use. In the hearing held on the farmer’s application, arguments including the following are made:

  • Farmers have rights to use and to benefit from their property; to deny this permit is to violate the farmer’s private property rights.
  • Nearby homeowners have rights to use and to benefit from their property; to grant this permit is to violate the neighbors’ private rights.
  • Large-scale confined animal farming pollutes the environment and creates human health risks; to grant this permit is to fail to protect natural resources and the public welfare.
  • Large-scale confined animal farming is regulated and better monitored for compliance with antipollution control than unregulated small-scale farming; to grant this permit will not harm local water or community health.
  • Farming is an endangered occupation; to grant this permit will enable a local family-owned farm to succeed by expanding operations and will help to preserve farming in the region.
  • Farming is an endangered occupation, and industrial farming is driving smaller farmers out of business; to grant this permit is to harm the local economy, which is still based on diverse types of farming.

If you were a local official, how would you decide this request? Clearly, many arguable issues and competing positions are involved. You might permit or not permit the use, basing your decision either way on a single argument. Alternatively, you might focus on a commonality among the arguments such as the wish to preserve rights or the wish to protect public health. Then you might ask the farmer and the neighbors to work out a compromise application. You might delay your decision until you have a revised application that takes specified risks to the community into account.

Argument has its limits in practical policy work, of course. “Arguments are made by all players all the time; as a result they have limited effectiveness. Although arguments are a necessary ingredient to any strategy, they never work by themselves” (Coplin and O’Leary 107). As the local government illustration suggests, you might need to craft a political compromise along with arguing your position. Also, you must recognize political conditions that will determine your argument’s effectiveness. How well an argument is received has more to do with majority control in a governing body than with the quality of the argument. In the local government illustration, the official who represents majority political power might have sufficient influence to force a compromise. The minority power representative might not, unless others can be persuaded to join the minority’s position.

When is argument important?

Argument can make a difference at several points in the process. Arguments matter before a policy process begins, as positions are being developed. They matter at the outset of a process, as stakes are declared and agendas set. They matter again at the end of the process, when a decision is being made.

Summary and Looking Forward

Persuasive policy argument is purposeful, audience-aware, logical, and authoritative. This week’s reading implicitly tells you that positions supported by argument are more persuasive than unsupported opinion. It explicitly shows you how to argue policy positions professionally. Week 6, next, applies argument to requesting action.


Coplin, William D., and Michael K. O’Leary. Public Policy Skills. 3rd ed. Wash­ington, D.C.: Policy Studies Associates, 1998.

Further Reading

Stephen Toulmin, The Uses of Argument. New York: Cambridge UP, 1958


Next, read about How to Argue in a Position Paper.


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