Exploring Society As Peacefully As Possible

Archive for April, 2012

Robert’s Rules of Order, Persistence and Efficiency

This is a second article triggered by a quote shared to me on Facebook. The first article, Law and Liberty, directly addressed the quote. This one will focus on why Robert’s Rules of Order (RRO) persist, and why they may not be the best procedural rules for all groups.

RRO were developed by Brigadier General Henry Robert in order to facilitate parliamentary meetings in social groups. These procedures were based on the procedure in the U.S. Congress but were meant for non-legislating bodies.

On their face they are meant to formalize procedure to facilitate better meetings. Further, Robert intended them to standardize the different procedures used by groups throughout the nation.

But nowhere is the effectiveness of RRO actually demonstrated. There are no studies in sociology showing that groups better achieve their goals by adopting RRO as opposed to any other procedural rules.

Why do they persist?

RRO persist for a number of reasons. First, they are not altogether “bad”.  They somewhat ensure that decisions get made and that member’s outlooks and concerns are heard. But they seem to do this in a cumbersome way, where it takes an expert to know the ins-and-outs of the particulars of the procedures and those without this knowledge are prone to lose their voice.

But there’s also other factors, like the prominence of Henry Robert himself. He was a ranked General and a member of many civilian societies. He was the first to the scene with a manageable system that could be implemented in nearly any organization. Thus even today the RRO persists due to the influence of a privileged man injecting them into many groups and through his efforts to try to normalize procedures for all organizations.


Many groups do not use RRO. Businesses and more informal social groups don’t adopt them in favor of procedures, whether formal or informal, are more prone to promote quick resolutions and profitable results.

There are also many other formal procedures that can be found on the internet. But these are not as widely adopted among organizations, for whatever reason.

RRO have always struck me as unruly and top heavy. As stated above, they seem to favor the individuals who are well versed in the rules, regardless of the merits of their proposals or assertions. They also seem to favor the “leaders” in the group, for as long as they are hesitant to acknowledge dissent, they can use the rules to move the meeting onto new topics with a heavy fist.

In this light I’d propose a route of further study to those in sociology and the study of institutions. Take any number of procedural rules, and maybe even a control group that has no formal rules, and give them to disparate groups. Give each group the task of achieving certain goals, measurable and controllable, and see which procedure-set best achieves.

In this way a real set of procedures could claim to be “efficient” (as RRO proponents claim, but do not prove).

To Each Group, It’s Own Rules

But even if a set of procedures is found to be most efficient in reaching certain goals, this by no means proves that they are “best” for reaching any subjective goals any group may have. Each person and each group should be free to choose the rules to which they are subjecting themselves. Only in this way will competing groups be able to evolve new procedures to adequately handle the problems in running group meetings.

Lastly, Robert’s concerns about standard rules for all groups is misguided. Each group has a particular characteristic of members, goals, competitors and environment. While standardizing their rules may make someone like Robert happy (because he was in multiple groups and wanted one procedure for all of them) – it ultimately will hurt the development of rationally chosen procedures that best promote the interests of the groups they serve.



Robert’s Rules of Order, Law and Liberty

In a pair of articles today, I will focus on Robert’s Rules of Order. In this post I will focus on a quote from the author on the cover page to the printed Robert’s Rules (RRO). This post will deal directly with the quote, while the next will focus on the efficiency of Robert’s Rules.

Law and Liberty

The quote was recently republished by my lovely and talented sister Lindsay on Facebook, in a post wishing a team from Michigan luck at their Parliamentary Procedure competition. I also wish them luck, and hope that their hard work has paid off, and that they are proud of the results (whatever they are) because they know that they did the best that they could to prepare.

The quote in question here is “Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty.”

I can sympathize with the sentiment of the quote; it essentially means that any people that wish to cooperate must agree to some set of rules of interaction so that the group can function and the individuals can reap whatever benefits they hope to accrue from membership in the group.

But the quote itself doesn’t explicitly relate this sentiment. It says that “law” is necessary to maximize “liberty”.

Does Law Generally Secure Liberty?

My first issue with the statement is that it seems to excuse totalitarian states in making whatever laws it wishes, for without them there would be no liberty. The quote doesn’t distinguish “good” laws from “bad” ones.

Certainly a structure of rules is needed to secure liberty. But there are rules that can explicitly inhibit objective liberties (Jim Crow laws, misogyny laws, sedition laws, prohibition laws), or those that can inhibit liberty as a secondary effect of their implementation (those that “chill” speech without prohibiting it, those that harm people economically, thus reducing their ability to exercising their liberty, or those that subsidize certain things and make it more expensive for people to exercise their liberty in choosing non-subsidized items).

Thus there is no general “law” that secures liberty, some laws reduce it even if others secure it. The only true law that secures liberty is the one that prohibits one person’s intrusion on another’s liberty.

In a group that wishes to conduct an organized, focused, efficient meeting, the law that secures liberty is a law dealing with order. This does not mean that ANY law will do to make sure that the group is well-functioning. Some laws may stifle member’s of the group’s opinions while bolstering the opinions of others. Some laws may fail to address particular needs of some members in the group. Some laws may outright disregard the will of the members of the group to favor the will of the leaders of the group.

So even to adequately address the singular goal of liberty, law itself is necessary but not sufficient. Certain laws will detract from and others will promote liberty.

Whose Law and Whose Liberty?

My second issue is that the quote doesn’t say who makes or should abide by the law, or whose liberty is being secured by it.

A number of persons that come together voluntarily to form a group indeed need to discuss the rules, or law, of the group: what determines membership, what the goals of the group should be, how the group should be funded, and how the internal discussion of the group should take place. Formulating these rules is essential to securing the liberty of the members of the group as far as their goals of participating in the group are concerned.

But does the same remain true among the general population? Is a singular “law” necessary to secure everyone’s liberty?

In this situation, the mere formulation of a singular law binding all people is a restriction of liberty. There will never be 100% consensus on what the law should be, and those people who disagree with any particular law are being inhibited from exercising their liberty.

Even assuming that some law could be applied to all persons and secure all liberty, the matter remains of who decides those laws, and who decides whether they are truly securing liberty.

As liberty is an inherently subjective matter, no person outside from yourself can measure how much liberty you have. This directly implies that no lawmakers can measure any aggregate or particular “level” of liberty in a population under a law.

There are certainly some indicators of whether a particular law promotes or inhibits liberty (such as economic well-being, imprisonment rates, studies of self-reported happiness, or employment or census data). But these cannot be studied in any meaningful way as they relate to particular changes in law. For in the human sociological sphere, no variable can be isolated and tested upon in repeated experiments.  See Mises on the epistemological problem.

So since no man or group of men can know that their formulated law can truly be good or secure liberty for the people bound by the law as contrasted to a world without their law, any law that binds all persons is a reduction in liberty. This is at least true in the fact that those who disagree with the law are not at liberty to opt-out and selected a new formulation of laws that are more appealing to them subjectively.


The quote implies that law, generally, is the precursor to liberty. But law, by definition, is a restriction on certain liberties.  Some parts of law are good at securing liberty (like prohibitions on force and fraud), but others can actively inhibit liberty. This is direct evidence that the quote is at least misstating the purpose of law or rules.

But most important is that law cannot precede liberty. If a person is bound into a law, all liberty has been lost. Instead, liberty is the precursor to law. People are free to choose which laws to follow and which to ignore. Only natural, or scientific, laws are unbreakable. If a group of people wishes to exercise their liberty to join a group which abides by a certain law, they are free to do so, whether or not those laws further enhance or actually impede their liberty. But the opposite is not true. An actor bound by a law has lost certain liberties, even if others have been guaranteed by it. And since the choice of what is important to an individual is made subjectively, any given actor may feel that some other set of laws my better serve liberty.