Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It can be state-enforced, in the form of statutes or regulations, or private-enforced, as in contracts and enforceable agreements between individuals or groups. It is sometimes described as a science or as an art. Law can serve many purposes, but its four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving conflict and preserving liberties and rights.
The first of these is the standard-setting function. For example, if two people both claim ownership of the same property, it is up to the courts to decide who is the rightful owner. This prevents violence and allows property to be used for the benefit of the community. Without this role, a society would be chaotic and difficult to live in.
Another important purpose of law is to maintain order. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, from police and firefighting to traffic laws and building codes. The goal is to ensure that everybody obeys the same rules and that social life and business activities operate in a consistent and organized way. Without this, chaos would quickly devastate a city and make it impossible to function.
In modern times, the law also protects individual liberty and rights. This is why people value a democracy, where citizens are free to express their opinions and where they can seek recourse to the courts when they are harmed or discriminated against. This principle of law is known as the Rule of Law, and it is an ideal that has guided human societies for millennia.
There are many branches of law, and they all overlap to some extent. Labour law, for example, covers the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union, while contract law concerns any agreement that exchanges goods or services for value. Property law deals with the rights and duties people have toward their tangible property (such as land or buildings) and intangible assets, such as shares of stock. Family and criminal law cover a wide range of issues, from divorce proceedings to the right to an abortion.
Legal systems are varied, and some have more success at serving their intended purposes than others. For instance, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and limit social change. In contrast, a democratic state may not always ensure that its laws are followed by everyone, or that they are fair.
A final point about law is that, even if it serves its intended purposes well, it also mitigates the asymmetry of power that naturally exists between ruler and ruled. This is why people generally value it, despite the fact that it can also lead to corruption and oppression. Fuller (1964) suggests that this inner morality of law consists of what he calls “a bond of constraint” between the governed and those who rule them. This makes it less arbitrary, more impersonal, and more predictable, and thus less coercive than a simple hierarchy of power.