What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that people recognize as regulating their actions. It imposes obligations, sanctions and rights on individuals in society, and it governs relationships between citizens and government, businesses and private parties. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and serves as a mediator of relations between people.

It is difficult to give a definitive definition of law. Different scholars have emphasized different aspects of it, and there are wide differences in how legal systems organize themselves. However, most agree that law is a system of social control that provides incentives for people to cooperate and punishes them if they disobey or break the rules. It also enables people to anticipate the consequences of their actions, and it enables them to plan their lives over time. The law may be written or unwritten, and it may be based on customary practice or a constitution. It may be applied to individuals or to groups, and it can be applied to the whole of a nation or a single part.

The most fundamental concept of law is power. Some philosophers, like Jeremy Bentham, have defined law as a set of commands, backed by threats of punishment, that a sovereign ruler issues to his subjects. This power-based view of law is sometimes called “legal positivism.” But some critics argue that this narrow conception of law ignores the fact that some laws reflect a moral stance against cruelty or injustice. For example, the prohibition against insider trading reflects a belief that it is unfair to trade on information that could be regarded as confidential. Similarly, the doctrine of due process (fundamental fairness and decency in government action) is a moral consideration.

Other important concepts in the study of law include property, family and international law. Property law concerns people’s rights and duties toward tangible things, such as land, houses and cars. It includes the right to acquire, possess, sell and transfer these things. It also deals with intangible property, such as money and stocks. Family law concerns the marriage and divorce of adults, and it relates to children’s rights. International law involves the relationship between nation-states, and it concerns the rights of foreigners to live and work in a country other than their own and to acquire or lose citizenship.

The practice of law encompasses a wide variety of activities, from the preparation of legal documents to the trial of criminal cases. There are many branches of law, including contract law, tort law and tax law. There are also specialized fields of law, such as competition law, which traces its origins back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade laws. Other areas of law are biolaw, which concerns the intersection of law and the life sciences, and forensic law.