What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that governs human relationships, sets standards for living, and provides the basis for social change. It shapes politics, economics, history, and society in many ways, and it is essential to our sense of order and well-being. It may be written or tacit, formal or informal, universal or particular, but it always exists to control some aspect of human activity, whether a community’s social relations, the conduct of war, or the way that businesses operate.

The laws of a nation are created to ensure peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, and provide for the equitable and orderly social change that occurs over time. In a democracy, laws are made by the people through their elected representatives. In a dictatorship, laws are imposed by the government. A legal system also provides for checks and balances on the power of governments. It ensures that the laws are not abused and that they reflect the will of the people.

A law can be a constitutional rule, a treaty, or a judicial decision. In common law countries, legislative statutes and judicial decisions are given equal weight and authority. The doctrine of stare decisis means that decisions of higher courts bind lower courts to reach similar conclusions.

Other types of law include intellectual property law, which covers the rights that people have over art and music they create, such as copyright; labour law, which deals with the relationship between workers and employers, such as the right to strike; and property law, which encompasses all of the rules about buying, selling or renting homes or land (real property) or objects (personal property). Laws dealing with family and inheritance issues are also part of the law. Competition law is an area of the law that tries to limit business concentration and market power in order to benefit consumers.

A key question is the extent to which the law reflects moral values. Some philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, believed that the law merely served utilitarian purposes and did not reflect any innate values. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that the law should incorporate fundamental moral principles.

In practice, laws are usually written by a legislative branch of the government or, in the case of the United States, by Congress and the President, and they become Public Laws when approved by the legislature and signed by the president. In some countries, laws are formulated by the executive branch, and in others by a combination of legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Some countries have a constitutional monarchy, while others have a republic with a presidential system. In a republic, the president is the head of state. The Constitution of the United States establishes a three-branch system. In both types of systems, the highest court, usually called the Supreme Court, is the final arbiter of a law’s validity and meaning. It also has the right to remove any laws that it finds unconstitutional.

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