Understanding the Basics of Law

Law is a set of social and governmental institutions that creates a framework to ensure a peaceful society. It is enforced through mechanisms that can punish those who break the rules by imposing sanctions. Law has many purposes, but the four most important are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Different legal systems serve these purposes differently. For example, a nation-state ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace but oppress minorities and stifle social change.

The law is made by legislatures, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges in common law systems through precedent, which also establishes a body of law known as case law. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts. The law is a highly complicated and diverse field, with many schools of thought and a great deal of lively debate.

The most widely accepted view of law is that it exists to provide standards for a society and bind the actions of its citizens. This is often called the “natural law” school of thought and reflects ideas like those expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the writings of John Locke. A related view is that citizens have certain “God-given” or “natural” rights, which government cannot legitimately take away. In this view, the law consists of a body of fundamental principles that can be interpreted by judges in various ways. Both approaches are valid, but the second approach is better at capturing the nuances of law in practice.