What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules created by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is often coercive, imposing sanctions on those who deviate from it. Laws may be made by groups or individuals through legislatures, resulting in statutes; by executive governments, resulting in regulations and decrees; or by courts through the “doctrine of precedent,” whereby decisions in similar cases set the standard for subsequent rulings. Laws can also be established by private individuals, resulting in contracts and arbitration agreements that are legally binding. The precise definition of law is a subject of dispute, and the word’s meaning is influenced by many different schools of thought.

Various theories of law attempt to provide a clear and concise description of what law is. Some of these theories are based on empirical observations and analysis, while others take an evaluative approach by looking at what laws should or ought to do.

One of the most basic functions of law is to guarantee that everyone has their core human, property and civil rights protected equally. This is done through a combination of laws and societal institutions such as police forces, the military and government officials who must all abide by the law. Another function of law is to resolve disputes peacefully. For example, if two people claim the same piece of land, the law allows them to argue their case in the court and a judge decides who owns the property.

The most fundamental purpose of law, however, is to serve as a source of order and control in society. A country’s laws, or the “legal system,” define the boundaries of individual rights, the relationship between citizens and the government, and how public officials manage public resources. A legal system that fails to function properly can result in chaos, civil unrest and possibly violent revolutions.

In most countries, knowing who makes and enforces the law is important information. For example, in a democracy, knowing who holds the political power allows citizens to demand changes to existing laws or even to abolish an unpopular one altogether.

Laws are the foundation of a stable society, and their importance to our lives is widely recognized. But how important are the many other functions of law that go beyond its coercive and sanction-imposing role? These include solving recurrent coordination problems, setting standards for desirable behaviors, proclaiming symbolic expressions of community values, resolving disputes about facts and the like.