Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of debate and it has been variously described as both a science and an art.
In common law countries, like the United States, judicial decisions form the basis of law along with statutes passed through the legislative process and regulations issued by executive branch agencies. The principle of “stare decisis” means that decisions made by higher courts bind lower courts and future judges in similar cases to assure consistency. In contrast, civil law systems, which are found in most countries outside the United States, base laws on codes that explicitly set out the principles that judges should follow to reach a decision.
The purpose of law is to provide order and preserve individual rights in a society. In the absence of law, conflict and chaos would reign. Laws set standards and maintain peace, protect people from each other, ensure property rights, and resolve disputes. The degree to which a country’s laws serve these purposes depends largely on the type of government in power. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but may oppress minorities or prevent peaceful social change. A democratic government, on the other hand, can promote stability while preserving individual rights and promoting economic prosperity.
Although there are many branches of law, some are more fundamental than others. Contract law, for instance, governs agreements between two or more parties to exchange goods, services or anything else of value. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects, such as houses and cars, as well as intangible assets, such as bank accounts and stocks.
Other branches of law deal with specific topics, such as libel and defamation, medical jurisprudence or environmental regulation. Criminal law, which relates to offenses against the community itself, encompasses everything from traffic violations to armed robbery. Tort law provides compensation for harmed individuals, whether in an automobile accident or by slandering their reputation.
Laws influence politics, economics, history and society in many ways. A good law will be clear and accessible, and it should apply equally to all citizens regardless of wealth or social class. A good law will provide checks on government power and enable citizens to collaborate with officials to improve the rule of law. In addition, a good law will be stable and reliable and allow people to trust that the courts will not change with each new political crisis. A country that has a weak legal system is unlikely to thrive. In the worst case, a dictatorship may achieve some of the same goals as a democracy, but it will not be able to protect its people’s liberty and safety. Ultimately, a country’s law is an expression of its culture and values. It can also be seen as a tool for international relations. For example, a country with a robust legal system will be more likely to conduct business and attract foreign investors.