What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that governs a society and dictates how its members should behave. Those who follow the laws are considered to be good citizens, while those who break them risk punishment. Laws are created by governments and can be enforced by courts or police agencies. Laws can be broadly categorized into criminal law, which deals with crimes like murder or theft, and civil law, which deals with disputes between individuals such as divorce or property division. The term law can also be used more generally to refer to a nation’s entire set of laws, as in “murder is against the law.”

Many different ideas about what constitutes law have been proposed throughout history. Some have argued that at its most basic level, law is nothing more than power backed by threats. This view is often applied to tyrannical rulers who create arbitrary or “bad” laws and then use their power to force people to obey them, whether they’re right or wrong. For example, the Nazis killed six million Jews pursuant to German law during World War II, while Saddam Hussein routinely tortured and executed political opponents in Iraq under Iraqi law.

Others have argued that law is the result of a social contract between sovereign and subject. The subjects of the law, they claim, agree to abide by the laws in exchange for protection and other benefits from the sovereign. This view of law is largely associated with liberal democratic constitutionalism, which promotes the rule of law as one of the foundations of a free society.

Most legal systems combine elements of both these approaches, with legislative statutes and executive regulations supplementing judicial decisions. For example, in common law countries, court decisions are given equal weight to legislative statutes under the “doctrine of precedent,” which means that a decision made in a case will determine the outcome of similar cases in the future. This is in contrast to civil law systems, where judicial decisions are rarely published and have less sway than legislative statutes.

The study of law is extremely broad and encompasses a wide variety of fields. Labor law, for instance, addresses the tripartite relationship between employer, employee and trade union and includes workplace rights like the right to strike. Family law covers marriage and divorce proceedings as well as the rights of children. Tax law, meanwhile, covers the rules and regulations of the Internal Revenue Code. Biolaw, on the other hand, is concerned with the intersection between law and the biosciences. Criminal law, meanwhile, encompasses all aspects of the criminal justice system, from arrest and interrogation to trial and sentencing.

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