What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules that governs people’s interactions with one another and with the environment. These rules include prohibitions on a wide variety of activities, and they are enforced through mechanisms such as criminal penalties. It is a subject of scholarly inquiry and provides an object of study in many disciplines, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis, and sociology.

Law covers a broad spectrum of subjects, and three categories are presented here for convenience, though the subject areas intertwine and overlap:

Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods, services or anything else of value, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (real estate such as land and buildings) and intangible property such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to social order, and its violation may result in imprisonment or fines.

There are few living cultures that rely on a non-modern scientific system of governing themselves, but those that do have a concept of law that differs significantly from the Western understanding of it. This discrepancy is a point of tension in the world.

The authority to make and enforce laws varies greatly from nation-state to nation-state. Knowing who makes the laws in a country can reveal its underlying politics, and that knowledge can inform decisions about how to support democracy or resist autocracy.