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A periodic table of associations

20 January, 2016 - 15:59

More than one way of classifying associations can be used at the same time, extending our analysis into a second dimension. Outside the context of politics, two-dimensional classifications are in fact quite common. For example, locations on the earth's surface are described in terms of two numbers, one representing classification by latitude and one indicating classification by longitude. The roomful of people mentioned above can also be grouped on the basis of more than one consideration. For example, its individuals can be classified both in terms of gender and in terms of whether they are wearing glasses. Four categories of people are thus created. It is always possible, of course, that no members of a possible subgroup may be found in a particular population we are classifying. For example, only bespectacled males may be present, so that in mathematical terms the category "males not wearing glasses" would be the "empty set".

Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table of the chemical elements is probably the most famous example of a two-dimensional classification in the history of science. It established the frame of reference within which chemical research has produced a dramatic increase in understanding and practical accomplishments during the last century. It even suggested the existence of new elements that were, in fact, later discovered or synthesized. It can and has been argued that the science of chemistry did not even exist before the periodic table.

A "periodic table" of human associations can be constructed by combining the two one-dimensional classifications which we examined above (as shown in Table 2.3):

  1. Horizontal dimension: involuntary, trusts, voluntary
  2. Vertical dimension: private, compound, public
Table 2.3 “Periodic table” of human associations





1. robber-victim

2. parents-children

3. husband-wife


4. Government-as-bandit

5. Government-as-trustee I

6. Government-as-contractor I


7. Government-as-legislator

8. Government-as-trustee II

9. Government-as-contractor II


The resulting diagram contains room for nine basic types of association, eight of which—for better or for worse— already exist:

  1. Private-Involuntary. Your relationship with the robber who sticks you up as you walk through a park is a private-involuntary association. It is private because neither you nor the robber is a government. It is involuntary because the robber unilaterally creates the association by threatening you with a sanction if you do not hand over your money.
  2. Private-Trust. The example given earlier of a trust, the parent-child association, is also private, since neither the parents nor the children—the parties to the association—are governments. Remember that a trust is an association where one party unilaterally confers inducements on another party.
  3. Private-Voluntary. The examples, as noted earlier, of voluntary associations are legion: marriages, corporations, unions, parties, churches. As it happens, these examples are all private too, since they are not governments and none of the parties that make them up are governments.
  4. Compound-Involuntary. When a government threatens particular people with sanctions, a compound-involuntary association is created. It is involuntary because sanctions are involved, and it is compound because one party is a government and the other party is neither a government nor the public. (The public includes everybody, but here only particular people are subject to the sanctions, not everybody.) Examples of such associations are, unfortunately, not difficult to find: the German regime's extermination of Jews during World War II is only a particularly egregious case. We will discuss this type of association more fully, below, when we examine pseudolaws. The aspect of government which is involved in this type of association can be called government-as-bandit.
  5. Compound-Trust. Here government unilaterally confers inducements on particular people. Since these particular people are not themselves governments and, being less than everybody, are not the public, the association is compound rather than public. Government-as-trustee I, as we will call this aspect of government, acts as residual trustee for children whose parents have abused their responsibilities as trustees or who are seeking a divorce. Government-as-trustee I also presides over Indian reservations. (Unfortunately, there is no residual trustee in case government abuses its responsibilities.)
  6. Compound-Voluntary. Government-as-contractor I enters voluntary associations with non-governmental parties, which may be individuals or associations. The relationship between government-as-contractor I and an individual employee of the Department of the Interior is a compound-voluntary association. It is compound because one party is a government and one is not; it is voluntary because it is established by mutual consent of the parties to the exchange of inducements. The inducement conferred by the worker on the government is the services he performs, say, as an accountant. The inducement conferred by the government on the worker is his salary and other benefits. When government-as-contractor I buys jet bombers from a private corporation, the other party to the resulting association is itself an association.
  7. Public-Involuntary. A public-involuntary association is exactly like a compound-involuntary one except that here government threatens everybody with sanctions, not just particular people. This difference, however, is crucially important. When government threatens sanctions against anyone who deliberately kills another or against all who fail to pay 24 per cent of their income to the Internal Revenue Service, it is not selecting particular people or groups of people to threaten. Since everyone is in the same boat and subject to the same rule, no one has an interest in imposing rules that are intolerable such as, say, a 97 per cent tax. This power to threaten the entire public with sanctions is the essence of government, and we will call this aspect of government government-as-legislator.
  8. Public-Trust. There are no known historical or actual examples of this type of association, although it is clearly a possible type. Government-as-trustee II, if it ever were to exist, would be like government-as-trustee I except that it would act as trustee—i.e. unilaterally confer inducements—for the entire public, not just for selected individuals or groups of individuals.
  9. Public-Voluntary. Another aspect of government, government-as-contractor II, enters into voluntary associations with other governments. These associations are public because all of their parties are governments. The two governments may be coequals, or they may have a superior-inferior arrangement. Treaties are an example of voluntary associations between coequal, independent governments. Within the US, public-voluntary associations often exist between two or more states. These states are equal and independent of each other, but subject to the national government in Washington D.C. The Constitution requires that such "interstate compacts" go into effect only with congressional consent. There are also many voluntary associations between the national government and those of the states.