What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules and practices that a society or community accepts as binding on its members. These rules and practices typically entail enforceable sanctions or punishments for violations, and are enforced by government authorities like police or courts. Law is the subject of a wide range of scholarly inquiry, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. The study of law raises important issues about equality, fairness and justice that are of interest to people around the world.

Many different kinds of law exist, depending on the specifics of a country’s culture and economy. These include labor law, which regulates the tripartite relationship between employer, worker and trade union, property law, which defines the ownership of goods such as land or cars, civil rights and criminal justice, the latter of which deals with punishment for crimes such as murder and theft. Other laws, such as intellectual property law, govern the rights that individuals and businesses have over creative works they produce, such as art, music or literature. Trust law (business) covers the use of money for investment, such as pension funds, and the legal rules that govern these investments. Laws that apply to multinational corporations are also included in this category, such as corporate and tax law.

While most of these laws are created by elected legislators, some are drafted by judges, arbitrators and other non-elected officials. The process of creating laws is called legislative politics, and can be highly contentious. In countries with a democratic system, political opponents often disagree on how laws should be written and passed. A wide variety of laws are enacted each year, and some are repealed or amended over time.

The purpose of law is to provide a framework for human behaviour, and some laws are more effective at serving this purpose than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it might also oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a democracy may foster social change while maintaining the safety of its citizens.

In the modern era, legal systems have become increasingly complex and diversified. In addition to governing economic growth and providing protection from external threats, they also regulate the environment, promote cultural exchanges, provide social services, support research, and protect citizens’ privacy. Some of these newer laws are also controversial, such as the internet’s impact on personal freedom and the expansion of military and policing powers.

A major source of controversy about the nature of law concerns whether it is a coercive or non-coercive social institution. Early 20th century legal positivists such as Hans Kelsen argued that law’s ability to impose sanctions is one of its most essential functions. However, twentieth-century scholars like Joseph Raz and H. L. A. Hart have disputed this claim, arguing that law’s coercive aspect has become much less significant than previous scholars assumed. Other sources of controversy about the nature of law include whether it differs from other normative domains like morality, religion and social conventions, and how that distinction is best analyzed.