What Is Law?


Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It serves four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Law is complex, and its development varies from nation to nation, even within a single country. Legal systems also differ in how they enact, enforce and interpret laws, but they tend to share some characteristics based on historically accepted justice ideals.

A basic definition of law is a set of rules that are created and enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate human interactions. The term is often used to refer to the specific rules that govern a given activity or circumstance, but it can also be applied more broadly to a general system of government or to specific activities such as commerce or travel.

While the scope of law varies from culture to culture, it typically includes a combination of customary and written rules. The written portion of law consists of legislative statutes and executive regulations, while the customary part of law consists of judicial decisions and legal precedent. The law can be divided further into various categories, such as contract, property and criminal law.

Each category has its own sub-categories, and each of these in turn has its own laws, rules and principles. For example, contract law covers all agreements that transfer something of value, from a simple purchase of a book to the sale of a house. Property law explains people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (such as land or buildings) and intangible property (such as money or bank accounts). Criminal law encompasses all criminal acts, from homicide to theft.

The underlying philosophy of the law varies widely, from utilitarian theories like John Austin’s to the more ethical theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas. These philosophers argued that law reflects natural and unchangeable laws of nature, reflecting the principles of good morality.

Law also reflects the power dynamics of nations, which are reflected in a variety of political and social issues. For example, revolutions over existing political-legal authority occur in numerous countries each year. Aspirations for greater democracy or more rights for citizens are a recurring theme in political life. Articles on these topics might focus on constitutional law; political science; philosophy of law; and legal education.