What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and ensure order. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as a science or an art. Its primary functions are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights.

The development of law as an institution can be traced through history. Ancient rulers relied on custom and tradition to keep their communities in line, but as societies became more formalized, laws grew more sophisticated and developed into a complex system of norms and codes that guide everyday life. Today, legal systems around the world vary in their form and complexity, but they share certain core principles.

For example, all laws must be open to public knowledge and be accessible to ordinary people. They must also be able to inform citizens of their rights and obligations in a given situation, provide guidance about how to best achieve a particular goal or resolve a dispute, and serve as a check on the exercise of power by government officials. These principles are known as the Rule of Law, and they have been a central theme in our political traditions for millennia. They are reflected in the works of philosophers from Aristotle to John Locke and the Enlightenment thinkers like Niccolo Machiavelli and Montesquieu. They are embodied in the legal system itself in the practices of lawyers, judges and other officials. And they are reflected in the way that the modern military, police and bureaucracy exert their influence over the daily lives of ordinary citizens, raising new questions about accountability that earlier thinkers never considered.

In addition, all laws must be enforceable. This requires a powerful political entity with the authority to produce, enforce and change them, as well as the will to do so. While there are a number of ways to establish and enforce laws, most countries have either a constitutional or parliamentary process for producing statutes, a judiciary that accepts the “doctrine of stare decisis” (meaning that decisions of higher courts bind lower ones) or some combination of both.

Civil laws, such as the law on torts, contracts and defamation of character, apply to disputes between individuals, while criminal laws deal with offenses against the state or community itself. Some countries that once were colonized by continental European powers have retained the civil law tradition, while others have adopted Islamic Sharia law or a mixture of both. In all cases, the laws that exist reflect the broader social and cultural context of the country. They are an important part of the nation’s fabric, and they have a profound impact on politics, economics and history. They shape the way we think about society and the way that we interact with one another, even when they are far from perfect or universally applicable. For this reason, the Rule of Law is an essential element of our political heritage and a central topic in modern discussion of the future.