When Civil Society Uses an Iron Fist: the Role of Private Associations in Social Control

Robert C. Ellickson (Yale Law School)

Abstract: Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Putnam are but two of the many admirers of the countless private associations that lie at the core of civil society. This article seeks to advance understanding of the law-like activities of these associations. Residential community associations and sports leagues, for example, make rules and levy fines on members who violate them. The New York Diamond Dealers Club and the Writers Guild of America, like many other associations, have established internal arbitral panels for the resolution of member disputes. Courts are highly likely to defer to the outcomes of these arbitrations. The article’s central positive thesis, hedged with qualifications, is that a private association tends to engage in social control when it is the most cost-effective institution for addressing the issue at hand. This thesis is used to illuminate some otherwise puzzling associational practices, such as the efforts of the National Football League and other professional sports leagues to control players’ domestic violence off the field of play.

Download the paper