The law is the system of rules that a government or society develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It includes both public law and private law. Public law deals with the activities of a government and ensures that individual rights are respected. Private law, on the other hand, deals with the property and personal freedoms of individuals. Tort law allows people to seek compensation when they are harmed by someone else’s actions, for example in car accidents or defamation.
Law can serve many functions in a nation: it can keep the peace, preserve the status quo, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice, and provide for orderly social change. Whether or not a legal system accomplishes these goals depends on its ability to identify and punish criminals, enforce contracts, and resolve disputes.
It also depends on its political power and the nature of its institutions. An authoritarian government can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it will have difficulty protecting citizens’ rights or promoting social justice. A democratic government, on the other hand, can be a model of good law, but it will not succeed without popular support. It may not be able to resist popular pressure from organized groups or to address the needs of different socioeconomic classes. A government that is corrupt, repressive, or unstable cannot be considered a lawful government. Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall are the most prominent defenders of a third theory of law’s function sometimes referred to as the “demand theory” of rights–the view that legal validity flows from the power or capacity of right-holders to demand their legal rights (Feinberg 1970: 130-158; 1980: 155; 1992: 185; 2007: 18-19). This approach to rights has also been advocated by William Blackstone.