The Concept of Law

Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and ensure that individuals adhere to the will of a community. It can be made by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, decreed by the executive, resulting in regulations and orders, or established by judges through precedent, which is typical of common law jurisdictions. The scope of law covers a wide range of issues and concerns, from the right to asylum and the legitimacy of war to property rights and the complexities of family relationships. It also includes the broader legal fields of criminal law and civil law, which deal with disputes between people and organizations.

The concept of law has been a source of intense debate and discussion for millennia, stretching back to ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle. In the early modern era it was shaped by the writings of scholars such as John Locke and James Harrington, and then later by the European Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu. More recently Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking about the role of law in society, and there has been a renewed emphasis on legal equality, fairness and justice.

While the law is often described as a set of rules and punishments imposed on citizens by the government, it can be applied more broadly to any group of binding rules that are enforceable by an authority. Even an informal set of house rules could be considered a law if they must be obeyed, as can the instinctive or spontaneous behavior of a person to save their life in a dangerous situation: the law of self-preservation.

The rule of law is the idea that a government and its officials are bound by laws, which are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and impartially adjudicated. This mitigates the asymmetry of power between the rulers and the ruled, and establishes what Fuller calls “a bond of constraint”. The principle of the rule of law is a complex matter from a methodological standpoint: normative statements about how things ought to be done are deprived of causal character (as they are in empirical science, such as the law of gravity), but still make sense if they are understood in terms of a priori relations involving predictable forces (such as the law of supply and demand). The resulting system should operate transparently and impersonally. However, the rule of law is not without its challenges. For example, the emergence of modern military, police and bureaucratic forms of government raises special problems about accountability that earlier writers such as Locke and Montesquieu did not anticipate. Moreover, a large segment of the population is excluded from its benefits and protections by racial, ethnic, religious and sexual discrimination. This can give rise to a culture of hate and intolerance, as well as to violence. This is a serious threat to the rule of law. The concept of the rule of law needs to be strengthened and rethought.