What Is Law?

Law, in its broadest sense, is a system of rules, often arranged in codes that govern a variety of activities and relationships among human beings. It serves four major purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights.

The law, as it is applied to different polities and cultures, varies significantly. However, most governing systems try to fulfill these four principal functions. In general, law reflects and helps to sustain the power structures in society. It also provides a vehicle for resolving conflicts and changing society, although this last function is often complicated by conflicting interests and a desire for stability.

For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it might also oppress minorities and restrict freedoms (e.g., Burma or Zimbabwe). In contrast, a constitutional democracy is expected to promote social justice, provide stable economic growth, and enable peaceful political change without violent upheavals.

There are a number of areas that are governed by the law, including contract, property, criminal, administrative, and tort laws. Each of these focuses on a particular activity, relationship, or situation and provides guidelines for behavior in that area. For instance, contract law governs the exchange of goods and services, while property law establishes people’s rights to and duties toward tangible objects (like land or cars) and intangible assets like bank accounts or shares of stock. Criminal law, in turn, establishes punishments for specific crimes, such as murder or fraud.

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