What Is Law?
Law is a set of rules that governs the behavior of people and institutions in a society. It is enforced by a central authority such as a government or court system. Its purpose is to ensure that everyone behaves in an orderly and safe manner, while preserving individual freedoms and preventing social disorder. Laws can be made through legislation, custom, or judicial decisions. There are many different laws in the world, including those governing health, safety, property, and crime. There are also different legal systems, such as civil law, common law, and Islamic law.
A common way to describe law is the concept of “rule of law.” This refers to the idea that a government, in the absence of a dictator or other despot, should be free of arbitrary and unchecked power, and that laws will be made fairly by a democratic process and enforced impartially. This ideal was developed in ancient Greece, by Aristotle (Politics 1287b); it was promoted by medieval thinkers like Sir John Fortescue (1471); and it was argued for by the Enlightenment theorists Montesquieu (1748) and James Harrington (1656), as well as by the architects of American constitutionalism, such as A. V. Dicey (1885).
Some laws are written; others are ad hoc and emerge through practice, such as customary practice or the judgment of a judge. Others are codified in statutes or the constitution. A law can be private or public. It can regulate commerce, personal freedoms, or the conduct of war. Laws can also be amoral or immoral, as in the case of piracy or torture.
The goal of law is to maintain order, protect rights and freedoms, prevent crime, and punish wrongdoers. Laws are usually established and enforced by governments, which can be national or local. However, other groups can be empowered to make laws, such as religious groups or communities. The law may be intended to protect minorities, preserve the status quo, or promote certain social justice goals.
A society without law would be a chaotic, dangerous place to live. A legal system ensures that people are treated equally and that property is not stolen. It also provides a means of resolving conflicts, such as disputes over land ownership. Laws can be enforced by police and judges, or they can be self-enforcing. For example, it is against the law to drive while under the influence of alcohol, so some people choose to obey this rule.
A career in law is a popular choice for college students and recent graduates. Lawyers and other legal professionals spend their time advising clients, defending or prosecuting individuals and corporations, and making decisions about punishments. In addition, they study the law, which is the body of rules that governs a particular area or group of individuals. For more information, see law, philosophy of; law, jurisprudence; and a list of articles about specific types of law. Related terms include censorship; judicial system; justice; property; and war. For more on the relationship between law and political structures, see constitution; ideology; and political party.