What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules established by and enforced by a political authority to regulate the conduct of citizens. It includes the set of all rules that govern a particular country or community, as well as legal theories and arguments about those laws. It is an important area of study, with many significant debates and controversies.

Some theorists have tended to focus their attention on laws as a sort of social science or art, or even as an idea of justice (proper distribution of goods/privileges and burdens in a society). But the vast majority of scholars have focused on law mainly as an institutional structure that serves specific ends—e.g., keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting minorities against majorities, or ordering and regulating social change.

A country’s laws may be based on written constitutions or statutes, or they might be rooted in custom. The latter, often found in countries that do not have strong formal justice systems, consists of longstanding local customs that greatly shape ideas of justice. These practices are usually oral, not written, and use a case-by-case approach to dispute resolution.

There are many kinds of law, and the precise definition is a subject of much debate. The central themes, however, are clear: (1) law consists of a set of commands issued by social or governmental institutions, (2) it can be enforced by those institutions, and (3) it is applied in order to achieve a variety of goals.