What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules and guidelines that a society or community recognizes as regulating the behavior of its members. It serves a variety of purposes, including establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. These purposes are reflected in many different types of laws, such as contract law, tort law, and criminal law. Laws can also be created to regulate a specific activity, such as banking or financial regulation, and to insure that private companies offering public utilities have a certain level of social responsibility.

Some laws are explicitly written and recognized as such, while others are more implicit in their nature. For example, the Titius-Bode law of planetary positions and Zipf’s law of linguistics are observed phenomena that may be loosely referred to as laws although they are not formally written down and tested in a court of law. Similarly, the principles of Occam’s razor in philosophy and Pareto’s principle of economics are often loosely referred to as laws even though they are not formalized theories or empirical studies.

A country’s legal system typically consists of a mix of formally written, codified law and judicially determined common law. In countries with common law systems, judges’ decisions are recognized as equal in status to legislative statutes and executive regulations. The judicial decision-making process is guided by the “doctrine of precedent” or stare decisis, meaning that decisions made in previous cases bind future courts to reach similar conclusions.

In some societies, the power to enforce law is vested in the state, while in others it is shared between a central government and local governments or communities. The degree to which a system of law is centralized or decentralized depends on the political ideology and history of a nation, the type of society it is trying to create, and its economic development.

The underlying purpose of most laws is to control human conduct by making it subject to punishment or reward. Other important functions include ensuring fairness and justice, providing for orderly change, and providing incentives. Some legal systems serve some of these functions better than others. For example, an authoritarian regime can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may also oppress minorities or its own political opponents (as in Burma under Saddam Hussein’s rule). Other legal systems are designed to provide checks on government power and protect property, freedom of speech, and other fundamental rights regardless of social class or wealth. These types of legal systems are characterized as being stable and enduring. They are based on principles of democratic accountability, free press, and other mechanisms for checking the balance of power between the government and its citizens. In addition, these countries have laws that formally guarantee basic human, procedural, and property rights for all citizens.