What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a community or government develops to regulate its behavior and enforce its code of justice. It can be a set of rules created by legislators, leading to statutes; or it may be a system of administrative codes developed by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or it can be a set of judicial decisions that establishes a body of precedent, such as common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding agreements with each other, such as contracts. The precise definition of law is debated by philosophers and legal practitioners. Some define it as anything that is enforceable by a court of law, while others distinguish between laws and other social restrictions. Those who ascribe to the idea that law is power often argue that coercion is an essential and necessary feature of law, but this argument runs counter to the notion that law should provide a beneficial channel for channeling and constraining public power, especially when the exercise of such power may harm individual citizens.

A society with a well-developed rule of law can function more effectively. It provides stability and security in the conduct of business and personal affairs, allowing people to plan over time with reasonable confidence that they will not be subjected to random and unjustified official arbitrariness. Law can provide a structure for resolving disputes and solving conflicts, and it can help prevent violence and war.

There are many types of law, which include administrative law, criminal law, family law, contract law, and tort law. In addition, there are special areas such as immigration law and international law. A broad area of study focuses on the relationship between law and ethics.

The concept of law has a long history. Hans Kelsen, for example, proposed a “pure theory” of law that defines rules that must be obeyed by everyone. More recently, Max Weber and other writers have reshaped thinking on the nature of law and state. In particular, the modern military and policing power that can exert influence over everyday lives poses problems for accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have foreseen.

Other important concepts in the study of law include legal realism and positivism. Legal realists believe that law is a human creation, and they think that the effectiveness of law depends on the person—such as a judge or prosecutor—who applies it. Unlike positivists, legal realists also consider social and economic considerations when determining whether a person has broken the law. They are therefore often critical of positivists. This view has some similarities to the philosophy of natural rights. See also censorship; crime and punishment; and the rule of law.