What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect rights. It can be state-enforced laws made by a legislature, which result in statutes or regulations, or privately enforceable contracts, which are often referred to as “contract law”. It can also be a combination of the two, resulting in “common law”.

The purpose of law is to govern society and create rules that promote peace, equality, and prosperity. It provides a framework of expectations and responsibilities that allow individuals to understand and predict how the system works. It can also help individuals protect their rights and privileges, provide redress for harm caused by others, and allow them to collaborate in the pursuit of shared goals.

Many aspects of law are complex, not only because of their underlying assumptions and the range of potential effects, but because they are unlike any other discipline or body of knowledge. For example, normative statements in law lack the empirical confirmation or causality that characterizes empirical science (such as the law of gravity) and even social science (as in the law of demand and supply).

Law is not just any set of rules; it is a complex socio-political construct that has historically evolved from the interaction of various influences and actors. It includes a constitutional foundation, formal or informal, that shapes the way in which power is distributed among different branches of government; a legal process for making laws; an institutional setting that determines the role and status of courts; and a rich and sometimes cross-national academic tradition of jurisprudence that informs legislatures and courts.

While the principles of the Rule of Law are generally considered formal in nature, people value them for reasons that go well beyond their logical rigor and clarity. Most notably, they take some of the edge off of political power by establishing what Fuller 1964 called a bond of reciprocity between the ruler and the ruled. The rule of law thus mitigates the asymmetry between the two parties, making power less arbitrary, more predictable, and more impersonal than it would be without it.

A key feature of the rule of law is the principle of generality, a requirement that law should include open and relatively stable broad rules that can be applied to particular orders. Those broad rules, however, should be flexible enough to adapt to changing social circumstances and new needs through the judicious interpretation of judicial precedent and creative jurisprudence.