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Private, public, and compound associations

30 September, 2015 - 12:17

Any set of objects can be classified in more than one way. For example the people in a room can be classified into groups in terms of the following characteristics: those who wear glasses and those who do not; male and female; political orientation: Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Socialist, and so forth; income per year; height. Clearly, classifying associations as involuntary, trusts, or voluntary does not begin to exhaust the possibilities; nor need we assume that only one approach to classifying associations is important or useful. We will now examine a second way in which associations can be sorted into categories.

A private association is one which is not a government and is made up of parties none of which is itself a government. We refer here to "parties" rather than to persons because once a simple association of two or more individuals exists this association itself may enter into still other associations. "Parties" is simply a convenient way of recognizing that the constituent elements making up an association can be either individuals or associations.

Governments, clearly, are not private as defined here, and this is obviously as it must be given the usual connotation of the word "private". Nor are associations between another one government and another private. The association between husband and wife is private, since (a) neither of them is a government, and (b) their marriage does not constitute a government.

Public associations are defined by any one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. One of the parties is an organization that imposes sanctions on people who have violated general rules of action laid down in advance.
  2. It is an association between a government and the public. (The relevant public consists of all individuals subject to the jurisdiction of this government.)
  3. All of the parties to the association are themselves governments.

The US government is public by virtue of characteristic number one: Some of its laws are general rules of action in the sense that they apply to anyone who takes the prohibited action. And the available punishments— deprivations of "life, liberty, or property", are clearly sanctions as we have defined them above. The United Nations, on the other hand, qualifies as public under characteristic number three, even though it is not itself a government. Its Charter is a multilateral treaty or contract between a number of governments.

A compound association is any to which at least one party is a government and at least one party is not a government (and is also not the public as defined above). Thus the US government may hire an individual to work for the Department of Justice or it may buy jet fighters from a private corporation. The resulting association is not private, since one of the parties to it is a government, and it is not public, because the other parties are not governments. It is, instead, compound.