What Is Law?

Law is a collection of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, as are the concepts that underlie it, such as justice and morality.

The legal system ensures that the rights of everyone are protected and provides a method for settling disputes that arise in a society. When two people have competing claims to property, for example, the legal system helps them resolve their differences peacefully rather than through violence or war. It also helps make sure that the government and other public officials carry out their duties according to the law, so that everyone is treated fairly and equally.

A legal system may vary from country to country and even within a nation, but all legal systems share some features based on historically accepted justice ideals. These features include the fact that laws are publicly promulgated and that they are designed to be understood by laypeople without professional help. It is often said that laws must be general, not targeted at particular individuals or groups. But this is only a formal requirement, since laws can be applied in ways that are unjust and discriminatory.

Another important feature of law is that it must be enforceable. This means that laws must be sufficiently clear and well-drafted to provide individuals with a reliable picture of what they are required to do by them. It is a fundamental aspect of the rule of law, emphasized by philosophers such as Fuller and Hart, that laws be “general, public, prospective, coherent, clear, stable and practicable”.

The Rule of Law has been an important ideal in the political tradition for millennia, and it continues to be widely valued today. It is one of a plurality of values that dominate liberal political morality, including democracy, human rights and social justice. Some legal philosophers, such as Raz (1977), have argued that the Rule of Law should be distinguished from these other values. But it is more generally recognized that the Rule of Law takes some of the asymmetry out of the exercise of power over others in a political community by making it less arbitrary, unpredictable and peremptory.

The Rule of Law is not perfect, but it is an indispensable part of the democratic tradition. It serves to diminish the asymmetry between those who govern and those who are governed, by making it harder for rulers to abuse their authority, and it allows citizens to hold government accountable for its performance. In a world that is constantly changing, the Rule of Law is an invaluable safeguard against injustice and instability. This is why it remains so valued. It is why it is so hard to imagine a world without it.