The Definition of Law

Law is the body of rules that regulates human behavior and defines people’s rights and duties toward both tangible property (like land or buildings) and intangible property (such as bank accounts or shares of stock). The precise definition of law is complex. Some scholars define it broadly as “a rule of action dictated by some superior and to which the inferior is bound in lawful conscience;” others restrict its scope to “a system of rules regulating human conduct.” Other definitions emphasize the role of law in society. Roscoe Pound’s definition, for example, stresses that law is a tool of social control and that its primary purpose is coercive.

In the United States, law is defined by the Constitution and various statutes. It is enforced by the federal government, state governments and local jurisdictions.

The fundamental purposes of a legal system are to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain the status quo, (3) protect individual rights, (4) preserve minorities against majorities and (5) promote social justice. The degree to which a nation’s laws accomplish these goals is largely determined by its political landscape. Nations ruled by authoritarian governments are often less stable and fail to fulfill the fundamental functions of law. In contrast, democratic regimes that prioritize the rule of law can foster economic growth and provide greater security and freedom for their citizens.

Different countries follow different legal traditions. Common law systems are based on English common law and can be found throughout the world; civil law systems, which are used in about 60% of the world’s nations, use concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law.