Civil Society's Rules of Order

"In 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 equitably?"

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 From 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. Scandalous!

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 about.

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

Robert's 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 bored
  • volunteer opportunities are unclear or absent
  • attendance drops
  • 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.

Spontaneous, 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.

Logical System

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 rationalist 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.

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 Again

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 society!

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

Online sources:

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

Robert's 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

Cagle's 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 Brief guide – in my opinion it's better than the Dummies guide, the Idiot's guide, and others that you may have seen.

June 17, 2006