What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, with sanctions being imposed if those rules are broken. While its precise definition has been the subject of much debate, it is generally accepted that the law is a system of rules designed to promote order and safety in society by ensuring that rights are protected, property respected and wrongdoing punished.

The development of the law has been influenced by many factors, including politics, economics, religion and history. Some laws are ancient and have remained unchanged, while others were created as a result of changing circumstances or disputes over government power. Modern concepts of a law-based system have evolved through judicial interpretation and academic discourse.

Modern law includes many fields that are specific to individual responsibilities and rights in society, from tort law (compensation for damage caused by a car accident or defamation of character) to criminal law (punishment for crime). It also encompasses more general legal concepts such as contract law, property law, constitutional law, administrative law and maritime law.

In addition to these fields, the law consists of legal institutions and processes that are designed to govern the behavior of society as a whole, such as governments, courts and parliaments. The law is also the basis for many professions, such as those of lawyers, judges and police officers.

A basic principle of modern law is that no one person should have unrestrained power over other citizens’ daily lives. This principle is embodied in the separation of powers that establishes a structure for government, ensuring that each branch of the federal, state or local government has limited authority to act without Congressional, executive or judicial approval. However, such limitations on the exercise of power are often difficult to impose in practice and modern military, policing and bureaucratic agencies exert extraordinary powers over individuals’ daily lives that their framers could not have foreseen.

For example, a law that allows an agency to arbitrarily punish people for not obeying a regulation is almost impossible to challenge in court using the traditional “arbitrary and capricious” review standard that is usually invoked when a governmental decision is unfair or unreasonable. Similarly, the legal doctrine of due process requires that government officials provide an adequate explanation for their actions. These challenges are even greater in the era of Big Data and other forms of surveillance. Fortunately, technological innovations are beginning to make it easier for individuals to defend themselves against these intrusions on their privacy. Nevertheless, it is likely that these trends will continue to create new and challenging problems for the law. As a result, it will be necessary to continually update the definition of law to meet the demands of a changing society. 1

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