What Is Law?


A law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise meaning is a topic of longstanding debate, as is the relationship between law and the nature of human society. In its broadest sense, a law is anything that the state has the power to enforce, whether a statute or an executive order. This can include anything from traffic rules to the rules of inheritance, but it also extends to the rules and punishments that the state may have in place for crimes like murder or robbery. Laws are created by governments, corporations or other organisations for many reasons, including to promote safety and efficiency, preserve the environment, protect private property and defend the interests of individuals. They are enacted and enforced by the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government or through privately created legal contracts and agreements.

Different approaches to the meaning of law have been proposed by philosophers and political scientists, such as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian law definition, which sees laws as commands backed by threats of sanctions from a sovereign that people obey out of habit, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of natural law, which sees law as reflecting a moral and unchanging set of principles rooted in human nature. Other definitions have emphasized the social context in which law is made, such as Hans Kelsen’s pure theory of law, which views it as a normative science that describes what must occur and defines ‘lawful’ behaviour.

In the United States, federal law usually refers to the areas of the country’s economy and society that have been expressly granted to it by the Constitution, such as the military, money, foreign policy (especially international treaties), tariffs, trade, copyrights and patents. It may also include some matters relating to interstate commerce, and it can expand into other areas through judicial interpretation under the Chevron doctrine or by the power of Congress to create regulations. Judicial interpretations of these laws and regulations carry the same legal force as the original statute or regulation, and may be used to support or invalidate a lawsuit.

Other legal fields are family law, focusing on marriage and divorce proceedings and the rights of children; criminal law, which covers the investigation of crime and prosecution of violators; immigration and nationality law, covering a person’s right to live in a nation-state other than their own and the acquisition and loss of citizenship; and business and commercial law, which includes contracts, corporate governance, statutory law and dispute resolution. A few areas of law tend to have a higher awareness among the general public and are likely to be more widely understood: these include consumer protection, employment, property, taxation, banking, insurance and biolaw. For more detail on these areas of the law, please see relevant articles. For the latest law news, please see our law blogs and news sections.