What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a nation, state or community recognizes and enforces as regulating human behavior. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people. There are four principal purposes of law: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Some legal systems are more effective than others at achieving these goals, while all legal systems must contain checks to prevent government abuses of power.

In common law countries, judges–not legislators–make the law by interpreting and elaborating broad statutory language through the “doctrine of precedent,” or stare decisis. This distinguishes common law from civil law, which is based on detailed legislative statutes. Many executive branch agencies in the United States use a hybrid of common and civil law approaches, but they do not generally make law directly.

A nation-state’s law may also include constitutional provisions that set limits on the power of its executive and legislative branches, while procedures such as no-confidence votes and regularly scheduled elections provide a check against excessive governmental powers. Other types of law include administrative law, immigration law and nationality law, family law and individual employment law, and law concerning business transactions and money.

There are also areas of law that involve the military, policing and bureaucratic power, such as civil rights and the laws of war. Finally, biolaw deals with the intersection between law and the life sciences.