What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that governs human conduct and society. Its precise definition is a subject of long-standing debate. Laws may be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, in the form of decrees and regulations; or created by judges, through precedent (in common law jurisdictions). Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and other agreements that provide alternative ways to resolve disputes to standard court litigation. These forms of law are known as civil law.

The most important functions of law are to keep peace and maintain the status quo, protect people’s rights and property, and help people adjust to changes in their lives. However, laws do not always accomplish these tasks well. A nation ruled by an autocratic leader, for instance, may keep the peace but oppress minorities and opponents; it may preserve property but fail to promote social justice or allow for democratic change.

Some laws are specific, such as the criminal code, which lays out the details of a particular crime. Others are broader, such as civil law, which provides remedies for various types of wrongs that can be committed against another person or business, such as fraud, breach of contract, negligence, or defamation. Still other laws are general, such as the laws of physics, which provide a consistent framework for evaluating the actions of persons and businesses.

Even in well-ordered societies, disputes can arise. The law allows these conflicts to be resolved peacefully, without a bloodbath. When two people claim to own the same piece of land, for example, the courts can determine which one has ownership rights and decide how to divide the land. The judicial process also serves to clarify the law, for example, by explaining how the courts have decided similar cases in the past.

The law is a fundamental part of a democracy, although the exact role it plays varies between nations. While some democracies place the power to make and enforce laws in the hands of elected representatives, other places vest this authority in military or bureaucratic officials. The degree to which the law serves the interests of the people also varies from nation to nation, and aspirations for greater “rights” for citizens are often a source of conflict.