What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, with many different theories of law existing. Law can be enacted by groups of legislators, resulting in statutes; by executive action, resulting in regulations and decrees; or by judges through precedent, resulting in case law (commonly known as common law). Private individuals may create legally binding contracts. Legal systems vary greatly, from a largely decentralized system of individualized local courts to a highly centralized state-controlled structure with standardized judicial proceedings.

Many books and articles have been written on the subject of law, ranging from philosophical treatises to technical textbooks. While some of these books focus on the philosophy or theory of law, others address specific types of law, including administrative law; criminal law; family law; and civil rights laws. Some scholars have emphasized the role of law in society, especially as a means of establishing standards and maintaining order; resolving disputes; defending individual liberties and rights; and providing for peaceful and orderly social change. Others have concentrated on the relationship between law and justice, or on the relationship between laws and morals.

The most straightforward view of law is that it is a means of controlling behavior. This interpretation focuses on the power of a sovereign to issue orders, and it assumes that if those orders are backed by force, they will be obeyed. This view of law is referred to as positivism. Critics of legal positivism argue that some laws do not reflect a moral stance, and that moral considerations should be taken into account in the lawmaking process. For example, the prohibition against insider trading might be seen as a moral stance against unfairness in the marketplace. Similarly, due process might be considered a moral position against cruelty and injustice in the treatment of citizens by government agencies.

Some people define law more broadly, encompassing any set of rules that constrains behavior. This broader definition of law could include rules that are designed to protect the environment, promote fair trade, or limit corporate corruption. It might also include social laws that prohibit discrimination, or rules that protect the safety and security of citizens.

The principal purposes of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, and provide for peaceful and orderly social change. Some legal systems serve these goals better than others. For instance, a government ruled by an authoritarian regime might keep the peace and preserve the status quo, but it might oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a constitutional democracy might be able to achieve these objectives without oppression. The ability of a political system to fulfill these roles depends on the extent to which it adheres to the principles of rule of law: publicized, publicly accessible, and equally enforced laws; a separation of powers; access to justice; participation in decision-making; and transparency and accountability in the judicial system.