What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. These rules are generally enforceable through penalties. There are many different branches of Law, ranging from contracts to criminal law. The specifics of each branch differ, but all laws are based on the same principles. For example, a person may be punished for driving without a seatbelt, but he or she may not be prosecuted for selling marijuana. The concept of Law is complex and has been debated for centuries.

A central goal of Law is to provide people with a sense of security and predictability. It also takes some of the sting out of the power imbalance that necessarily accompanies being ruled by a political community. The heritage of arguments about the Rule of Law begins with Aristotle and continues through medieval theorists like Sir John Fortescue; through the Enlightenment writings of John Locke, James Harrington, and Niccolo Machiavelli; and into the American constitutionalism of The Federalist Papers and F.A. Fuller.

The precise definition of Law is a topic of ongoing debate, but there are a few fundamentals that all scholars agree on. First, a legal system should be epistemically accessible: it should contain a body of norms that is publicly promulgated and is sufficiently transparent to allow individuals to study and internalize it, figure out what it requires of them, and use it as a framework for planning their lives and settling disputes with others. This requires the independence of the judiciary, the accountability of government officials, and the integrity of legal procedures.

Another basic component of Law is that it should be objective. In other words, the governing authorities should seek to treat rich and poor equally. This is hard to do, but it is possible for a judicial system to achieve this ideal, and several have done so. However, the judicial system is not immune from problems caused by its own human nature: judges are fallible and sometimes make bad decisions.

Some countries, such as the United States, use a common law system that relies on case law (judgments from previous cases) instead of statutes. Other countries use civil law, in which judges follow a set of codes to determine their decisions.

There are numerous other branches of Law, such as contract law, criminal law, family law, and property law. These cover a wide variety of issues in everyday life. Contract law governs agreements to exchange goods or services; criminal law governs crimes; family law covers divorce proceedings and the rights of children; and property law defines a person’s ownership and duties toward tangible and intangible assets. In addition, there are special areas of law such as immigration and nationality, which deals with the rights of foreigners to live in a country, and citizenship; and constitutional law, which deals with the limits of governmental powers.