What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created and enforced by governmental or social institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise nature and content is contested, with a wide range of theories being advanced to explain it. Law is a complex phenomenon that is essentially contingent on humans and their minds. This makes it impossible to empirically verify its content, which depends on the shape and limitations of the physical world. It cannot mandate behaviours that are beyond the capabilities of human beings or impose punishments that exceed a person’s capacity to bear them.

Law informs people’s daily lives in many ways. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods and services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible property, such as houses and cars, and intangible property, such as bank accounts and shares of stock.

Other branches of law include criminal law, which deals with the punishment of crimes; administrative law, which governs how governments operate and manage public services and utilities like water, energy and telecommunications; and restitution law, which regulates victims’ compensation rights. Some legal systems are based on religious precepts, including Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law.

People value the principle of law for a range of reasons, not least because it mitigates the asymmetry of political power between the rulers and the ruled. But there is also a more practical reason: it reduces the uncertainty of living with the law and allows people to feel confident that they will be treated fairly, regardless of their wealth or status.

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