What Is Law?


Law is a body of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Different legal schools of thought focus on a wide range of issues, from whether laws can be objectively defined to how they should be interpreted and applied. The law may be enforced by the government via decrees and regulations, or privately by businesses through contracts and arbitration agreements. It may also regulate economic behavior, such as monopolies or price controls. It can protect minorities from majorities, or it may promote social justice and peace.

The nature of the law varies among nations, with some having more complex constitutional systems than others. In the United States, the Constitution sets out fundamental principles that guide the law, and a large number of federal statutes and regulations exist to supplement or preempt state law in specific areas. For example, immigration law reflects national concerns about how people enter and leave the country, and labor laws set standards for workers in private industry. Family law, tax laws, and the laws governing bankruptcy and property are areas where federal laws interact with state laws.

In some countries, the law is a central part of society. It establishes a common language for describing rights and obligations, a common system of punishment for crimes, and a common set of courts that resolve disputes in accordance with the law. The law can define property ownership, rights in land, and the rights of individuals to privacy, freedom of expression, and religious practice. It can protect the environment and natural resources, provide a safe transportation network, and control epidemics.

The law can also serve a variety of other purposes, such as maintaining political stability, preserving the status quo, and providing for the peaceful and orderly transfer of power between different leaders. However, the power to create and enforce the law can also be used for more authoritarian ends, such as maintaining a state of war or oppressing minority groups.

The purpose of the law varies with the type of society and its culture. For example, in societies with an emphasis on religion, the law may embody religious values; in a democratic society, it may be based on the principle of equality. In any society, the law should reflect the social norms and moral standards that the society deems appropriate. In addition, the law should allow for checks and balances on its own powers, including a free press and effective separation of branches of government. It should also be transparent and accessible to all members of the community. If these goals are not met, the law is likely to fail. If they are met, the law is likely to succeed. This article is excerpted from Oxford Reference. For more information, see the full Oxford Dictionary of Law or contact us. 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No duplication without permission.