What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that regulates human behavior. It is a central subject for scholarly inquiry in areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology, and it is the source of many important practical activities.

Law has a complex nature and its precise definition is a matter of ongoing debate. Most commonly, it refers to a set of rules that are created and enforced by the state in order to protect people’s rights. Law is a vital tool in a civilized society because it helps to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and that the government does not abuse its power.

While laws are often developed through a legislative process, they can also be derived from custom and case law. For example, in “common law” systems such as the United States, decisions made by judges are regarded as law and are binding on lower courts and future judges through the doctrine of stare decisis. In contrast, in the more formal legislative system of the European Union, laws are adopted by the European parliament or council.

Regardless of the method of origin, law must be enforceable and able to adapt to changing social conditions. It must also be accessible, understandable and easy to use by the ordinary citizen. This is a major challenge. Law is often written in technical terms that are difficult to read and interpret, and the process of drafting and amending laws is time-consuming and expensive.

People value law not only because it is a source of practical activity, but also because it takes the edge off the power that must be exercised over them in a political community. It establishes what Fuller (1964) called a bond of constraint between rulers and ruled and makes power less arbitrary, impersonal and coercive.

For example, if two people claim ownership of the same piece of property, law can resolve the dispute without bloodshed. In addition, the law can prevent the misuse of public funds by regulating the ways in which governments and other public agencies spend money. The laws also ensure that people’s rights are protected, and they provide guidelines for police and other public officials in carrying out their duties.

However, the mere existence of laws does not necessarily mean that they are effective. Especially in human affairs, where people and situations are so varied, it is challenging to create generalized rules that can be applied to all cases. This is a key concern of legal pragmatists, who put more faith in the insight of judges into new situations than in the application of rote rules or strained analogies with ancient precedents.

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