Law is the system of rules that a nation or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. Its primary purposes are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect liberties and rights. Some legal systems serve these purposes better than others: for example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and preserve the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and political opponents. A democratic government, on the other hand, may promote social justice and facilitate orderly and peaceful social change.
The study of law encompasses a wide range of topics, from the specific legal subjects (such as criminal, property, or family law) to general aspects of the law, such as the nature of law and ethics in law. It is important to understand the complexities and controversies of law in its broadest sense, in order to properly evaluate and criticize the laws themselves as well as the societal context in which they are enacted.
Traditionally, the term “law” has been used to refer to a body of written or unwritten norms that bind people and societies. The laws are typically created by an authoritative institution, such as a government, church, or corporation. People are obligated to obey the laws, and may face punishment if they break them.
Legal systems vary in the rules they impose on their citizens, and the authority that creates them and enforces them. Some systems are highly centralized, and some devolve powers to local entities. In the United States, for example, the federal government establishes national law through statutes, regulations, and executive orders. State legislatures establish local law through constitutions and bills.
A legal right is a claim against a person or entity that gives the owner of the right the power to act in certain ways. For example, a property owner may be able to sell or gift his or her property under the terms of real estate law. The law may give such a person the right to do so even though it would be against his or her moral duty to do so (see Hohfeld).
The law includes a wide variety of subjects, from the specific rules that govern the sale or transfer of property, to the broader concepts and principles of legal philosophy. It covers the laws of nations, communities, and organizations, as well as international law. Legal philosophers have debated the meaning and importance of the law, and have developed a theory that distinguishes the legal subject from other subjects of human activity. This theory, called metaphysics of law, focuses on how the law relates to people and their actions. The law’s relationship to people is embodied in a concept of rationality, which is reflected in the laws’ rules regarding what is reasonable to do or not do. It is also reflected in the laws’ rules regarding rights and obligations, such as privileges and powers, claims and immunities, and rights of first and second order (privilege-rights and power-rights). It also encompasses a rule of equality before the law.