What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules, enforceable by the state, that governs people’s relationships. Whether it is the rules that protect us against criminals, the laws that regulate commerce or the laws that establish civil rights, the concept of law reflects the social norms and values of society and serves many important functions. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is a foundation of the modern economy, and it provides a medium through which people manage their own affairs. It is also the basis for the institutions that enable democratic governance and provide public services and utilities such as water, energy, banking and telecommunications. It is also the basis for a wide range of careers, including those of lawyers and judges.

Despite its central importance, it is not easy to define what law is. Various legal systems have different approaches to this question. Some focus on a written constitution that sets out a government’s structure, limits and responsibilities, while others rely on a set of principles for governing a community based on custom and practice. Some focus on the power of a sovereign over its citizens, while others emphasise the need to make decisions in an impartial manner.

While many books have been written on the subject, it is hard to give a single definition of law. Rather, the concept of law is complex and continually shaped by debates about how to live with difference, how to balance individual liberty with public good, and how to define what constitutes a legitimate use of military, police and bureaucratic power over individuals.

The most basic definition of law is that it establishes the framework that ensures a peaceful, ordered society. Its aim is to curb the worst kind of wrongdoing — those things that violate what might be called the moral minimums that a society demands of its members. This includes not only crimes, but other misdeeds such as libel and slander.

A lawful regime also ensures that people can be held accountable for their actions by making it possible to sue them or to be prosecuted. A rule of law is also a way to ensure that government is transparent and accountable to its citizens, and that those who have the most influence over policy and resource allocation are subject to the scrutiny of the legislature.

In common-law countries such as the United States, law is created mainly through the courts. The law is embodied in decisions, called cases, that are articulated as holdings, or rulings, in the context of specific disputes. Courts may also apply the doctrine of stare decisis, whereby a decision made by a higher court binds lower courts to follow its reasoning in similar cases. In contrast, in civil-law countries such as France and Germany, legislation is more detailed, and judicial decisions are less important for the development of the common law.