Civil Society's Rules of Order

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a land where perhaps most persons…are members of one or more societies,
some knowledge of parliamentary [procedure] may be justly regarded
as a necessary part of the education of every man and woman…"

Henry M. Robert (1837–1923)

When I was
in high school, I was exposed to Robert's
Rules of Order
. Daunting to master at first, I found that the
Rules of Order paid dividends in my ability to participate in and
run meetings — Drama Club, Chess Club, Science Club, etc. I joined
and formed other clubs as I went through college and into adult
life: college fraternity, reading and discussion groups, language
learning, political parties, professional societies, homeowners'
association, etc. I continued to reap the benefits time and again.

As my friend
NSK pointed out, "Without Robert's Rules of Order, how can
you possibly pick a DM

Civil Society

The acid test
of Robert's Rules of Order is their utility, but they can be useful
only where there are societies and clubs. Tocqueville, in his Democracy
in America
, noted:

The Americans
make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries,
to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send
missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals,
prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth
or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example,
they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking
you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England,
in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

But rights
violations and encroachments by governments batter the institutions
of civil society. There is a tendency for civil society to shrink
when the power and scope of the state is enlarged. David Beito's
Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social
Services, 1890–1967
is illustrative of the point. He
shows that as the welfare state grew, fraternal societies shrank.

The modern
rise of homeschooling is a hopeful counterpoint to this theme. And
there still exist wonderful community groups of long tenure, such
as Sertoma International and Rotary International, not to mention
church groups, community associations, sports clubs, and even bunko
circles and dinner circles. The libertarian individualist might
say, "well, I'm not a joiner". I once received an email
from a prominent anarcho-capitalist theorist saying that he never
joined clubs of any sort because he didn't want to be pigeon-holed.

It is these
institutions that protect us against the state. They are the intermediating
institutions that can, with their size and resources, effectively
lobby against ill-conceived plans and render unnecessary the tax-and-regulate
"solutions" promulgated by "planners" in myriad
ways: by holding out real-world examples of the alternatives; by
providing informal venues for political debate among citizens; and
by connecting people in the community with a web of relationships
that lowers transactions costs for working together on projects
where the establishment of a full society would not obtain. These
institutions are the "little platoons" that Burke wrote

Mr or Ms Libertarian,
it is not enough to be anti-state: you must be pro- civil society.

Rules, Where are You?

But from my
vantage point, Robert's Rules are on the decline. My wife tells
me of the chaos in her Writer's Guild. I have witnessed the demise
of a homeschool coop and support group. I have seen a community
association lose its vitality. I have seen the magic of a dads-and-kids
program wane. I have even heard of an international society of great
promise that seems to have no clear direction. Why? In large part,
because of ignorance of Robert's Rules of Order.

Ignorance (or
ignoring) the Rules of Order means:

  • meetings
    go nowhere
  • meetings
    degrade into chat sessions where nothing is decided
  • important
    items aren't discussed
  • people become
  • volunteer
    opportunities are unclear or absent
  • attendance
  • the group
    becomes ineffective
  • the vitality
    of the group is enervated

Proving this
assertion — that Robert's Rules of Order are a necessary part of
a society or club — is beyond the scope of a short article. But
let us marvel at some insights that will lend credence to the claim.

Evolved Rules

It was not
Mr. Robert
that originated the rules that bear his name. Having fumbled a bit
at a church meeting, Robert undertook study of parliamentary procedure
to improve his skills. He studied how the English Parliament and
other deliberative assemblies handled their meetings. There was,
in the accumulated traditions of the Parliament, an excellent system
of rules that was the result of centuries of trial and error.

These rules
were (and are) an example of spontaneous order. Like law, language,
and money, the institution of parliamentary procedure was the result
of human action, but not of human design.

But that's
not the whole story. Just like law, language, and money, once these
evolved systems are understood, they can be systematically studied
and improved.


Robert was
an engineer. This may have made him particularly well-suited to
understand the internal logic of, explicate, and extend the system
of parliamentary procedure. What is usually not well appreciated
is that most of Robert's Rules of Order are not merely one way
to lead a deliberative assembly — the rules describe the best
way. From a social
perspective, one can appreciate that the Rules of
Order, once comprehended, can be thought of as a logical system,
similar to geometry, but having much more in common with praxeology.

starts with the fundamental proposition "man acts", then
teases out the implied categories of action — means, ends, valuation,
time, etc. The Rules of Order are implied in the concept of a deliberative
assembly: the notion of a deliberative assembly gives rise to the
categories of motion, debate, amendment, decision, rescission, etc.

There is a
good deal of empirical content to Robert's Rules, but every rule
has a logical justification. The clearest instance of this might
be the codification of order
of precedence of motions
. If a main motion is before an assembly,
other motions may be brought that can interrupt the main motion.

But what should
be able to interrupt the main motion?

Another matter
later on the agenda?

No, it
is expedient to deal with the matter at hand before proceeding.

An amendment
to the main motion?

Yes, the
assembly could agree on a better formulation of the motion.

Now, if an
amendment is being considered, what could interrupt that?

A motion
to postpone indefinitely?

No, amendment
might change the answer to that question, so the amendment must
be resolved first.

A motion
to limit the time of debate?

Yes, since
time constraints are a necessary concern in all decisions to
be made.

In an interminable
meeting you may have heard someone quip, "a motion to adjourn
is always in order". That's almost true: the only pending business
that a motion to adjourn cannot interrupt is the consideration of
a motion to set a specific time of adjournment.

Every possible
category of (non-incidental) motion has been identified and arranged
along a scale of order of precedence. The logic and brilliance,
and indeed, the exhaustiveness and impenetrable logic of the system
are beautiful to comprehend. If you have never studied Robert's
Rules of Order, it is worth study if only as an intellectual system.

But, as I mean
to emphasize, its worth is far greater.

Civil Society

Perhaps my
perception of a decline in the familiarity and use of the Rules
of Order are an indication of a shrinking civil society. In preparing
this article, I talked to many people who are members of no societies
or clubs, and have only attended meetings at work, where clear lines
of authority, alignment of interests (serving clients' wishes),
and small meeting sizes obviate the use of Robert's Rules of Order.

Aren't people
involved in civil society any more? Or are my perceptions in error?
Please let it be the latter. There is something we all can do:

Defend civil

Learn Robert's
Rules of Order, practice them, and teach them where you have to!

Online sources:

Procedure Online
— This is an online version of the Fourth
Edition of Robert's Rules of Order, now in the public domain

Rules of Order Online
— Companion site to the one listed above
— Another online version of the Fourth Edition, with some enhancements
— hosted by the same people that bring us
— The Official Site

Summary of Parliamentary Procedure
— A nice overview by a
Professor of Communication at California State University, Fresno

Offline sources:

The best
is still Robert's
Rules of Order
. If you are new to the system, or need to teach
someone who is new to the system, get the official In
guide — in my opinion it's better than the Dummies guide,
the Idiot's guide, and others that you may have seen.

17, 2006

Guillory [send him mail]
recently elected Parliamentarian of the San Jacinto Expedition of
the YMCA Adventure Guides in The Woodlands, Texas.

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