What Is Law?

Law is a system of social and governmental rules designed to control behavior. Its precise definition is the subject of much debate, and it has been variously described as a science and an art. In its broadest sense, law includes the societal rules and customs that govern a nation’s society, including social restrictions such as censorship and crime and punishment. It also encompasses the formal legal system of a country, with laws passed by legislative and executive branches and enforced by the courts.

In a nation, laws serve several purposes: they keep the peace and preserve the status quo, they protect individual rights from majorities, minorities and their oppressors, and they allow for peaceful and ordered social change. The effectiveness of a nation’s legal system depends on how well it serves these objectives. A nation ruled by an authoritarian government may do the first of these functions very well, but it is likely to fail in the others.

Many books and debates have been devoted to the question of what constitutes law, and some writers have offered quite different theories about this important topic. The most widely accepted view is that the law is a set of socially sanctioned rules that provide a framework for ensuring a safe, orderly society and punishing those who violate these rules. Laws are typically created and enforced by a combination of social and governmental institutions, with the role of the legislator often less important than that of the judge or lawyer. Laws are usually based on precedent and reasoning from earlier cases, and they must be carefully crafted in a way that ensures their practicality.