What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. Its precise nature and the exact contents of a given law remain open to debate, but generally it comprises a set of precepts that people are expected to follow and laws that impose restrictions on the activities of others. It is a powerful force that shapes politics, economics and history in many ways.

It is also an extremely important mediator of relations between people in many societies. The law provides a way for citizens to settle disputes with one another and to protect themselves against abuses of public or private power. This requires the independence of the judiciary, the accountability of government officials and the transparency of legal procedures.

There are many different kinds of laws, covering an enormous variety of topics. Three broad categories are presented here for convenience, though the subjects intertwine and overlap:

Contract law covers all agreements to exchange goods or services; property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible possessions (such as land or buildings) and intangible assets like bank accounts or shares of stock; and criminal law governs crimes against the state, including treason, murder, theft, fraud, etc.

The notion of law as a kind of moral code has been with us for millennia. It is embedded in the heritage of Western political thought from Aristotle, through medieval thinkers like John Fortescue and Sir John Locke, to the English Enlightenment and Montesquieu. It is a central theme in American constitutionalism, in the Federalist Papers, and in the American Civil War debates that produced the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Most people value the Rule of Law for a variety of reasons. It provides them with a sense of security, because they can be confident that the state will not arbitrarily decide to take away their freedoms; and it mitigates the asymmetry of political power between rulers and ruled, by providing what Fuller called a bond of constraint between them.

However, there are concerns about the way in which an emphasis on the Rule of Law can stifle independent moral thinking in officials and ordinary people alike. It can lead to a fetishization of law and create a mentality in which only that which is expressly permitted is permissible.

The law is a complex concept, with the precise nature and contents of individual laws influenced by a number of factors, from the cultural background of the society in question to its political history. Laws can be codified by central bodies such as legislatures, or they can be based on precedent developed in a courtroom. Historically, the latter have been the dominant form of law in most countries, although there are still significant areas of the world where religious law, particularly Islamic Sharia, is the primary legal system. The law also reflects the differing perspectives and beliefs of those who are creating it, with modern judicial systems rooted in the Anglo-Saxon tradition that originated in England and was heavily influenced by Roman law, French civil law and German idealism.