What Is Law?

What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that governs the behavior of individuals and groups in a society. It can be a source of order, security and justice. Some laws are based on custom, others are imposed by a government. The most basic definition of law is a collection of rules that govern behavior and that are enforced through mechanisms such as sanctions and punishments.

Legal experts have come up with many different ideas about what law is. Hans Kelsen created the ‘pure theory of law’, which states that law does not seek to describe what must occur but rather defines certain rules that individuals must abide by. Friedrich Karl von Savigny gave the historical law definition, which states that a legal system grows out of a people’s common consciousness, and custom precedes legislation.

Other definitions of law focus on specific types of laws or legal systems. Some examples include criminal, civil and family law. Criminal law focuses on crimes against the state, while civil law focuses on disputes between individuals. Family law covers marriage, divorce and other issues relating to families and children. Other fields of law include tort, employment and constitutional law.

Many people also look at the concept of law in terms of power and coercion. Roscoe Pound, for example, saw the role of law as primarily social control, using coercive measures to meet society’s needs. Modern scholars such as Max Weber have reshaped thinking about the limits of state power and how law shapes social life.

Some people have a view that the only purpose of law is to provide power backed by threats. This understanding of law leaves citizens at the mercy of a sovereign that may issue arbitrary commands (think Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein). Other people, however, believe that laws can be morally good or bad, and that there is a difference between laws imposing coercion and those promoting freedom.

In a democratic nation, laws are created through a process that includes legislative and judicial processes. Legislation consists of statutes, which are duly enacted by a legislature, and regulations, which are created by executive branch agencies. The latter are then compiled into the Code of Federal Regulations, or other official compilations, and carried weight in court decisions under the principle of stare decisis. In contrast, judicial decisions are interpreted by judges and attorneys, who make rulings that apply to individual cases but may also have broader meaning for future cases. The interpreting process involves an examination of the case facts, precedents and other relevant scholarly literature.