What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules governing an activity that are enforced by a controlling authority. The rules are often imposed through penalties. Law encompasses many fields, ranging from regulations on airline baggage to the rights of a patient under medical care. The term is also used in a wider sense to refer to a system of laws governing the whole economy, government or public activities.

Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It defines the limits of government power, and it provides the foundation for democratic elections, a free press, fair trade, civil rights, freedom from religious persecution and freedom of expression. It regulates relationships between individuals and businesses, and it defines the boundaries of personal privacy.

A central question in the definition of law is the extent to which it incorporates morality. John Austin, an advocate of utilitarianism, defined it as “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience”. But some philosophers argue that the notion of law should include moral principles. The prohibition against insider trading, for example, might be seen as a moral position against unfairness, while the concept of due process of law reflects a concern with fundamental fairness and decency.

Legal systems vary widely in the way that laws are formulated and enforced. For instance, the United States employs a common law legal system, whereby laws are based on the decisions of judges in individual cases. In contrast, Japan employs a civil law system, where judges base their decisions on statutes that lay out the rules for deciding cases.

In addition to statutory law, which includes criminal laws and civil rights, there are numerous specialized fields of law. Labor laws, for example, address the tripartite relationship between employer, employee and unions, involving topics like minimum wage and workplace safety. Competition law is an area that addresses business practices that distort the market, a field that stretches back to Roman decrees on price fixing and English restraint of trade legislation at the turn of the 20th century.

Other specialized fields of law include the law of taxation, which lays out how to collect and pay taxes. Banking law concerns the amount of capital banks must hold, and financial regulation imposes standards on investment practices. Water law, meanwhile, involves the regulations of utilities that are formerly managed by governments and now operated by private companies. These companies must adhere to a broad range of social responsibility codes. All of these specialized fields are shaped by the overall philosophy that is behind them. This philosophy is commonly referred to as the rule of law. It entails that all of the laws that are formulated, codified and enforced should be clear, publicized and equitable. It also ensures that citizens have access to justice and that government officials are accountable. It also guarantees that private property, contracts and procedural rights are protected. These standards are considered to be crucial for a democracy.