What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human conduct. Its precise definition is subject to wide debate. A central issue concerns the nature of law, whether it is coercive and why or how this coercion operates.

Legal philosophers have attempted to answer this question in a number of ways. Utilitarian thinkers like Bentham argued that the law is an aggregate of commands, backed by threats of sanction, from a sovereign to subjects who have a natural tendency to obey. John Austin, in contrast, posited a concept of law that incorporates the morality that underlies social conventions and etiquette.

The principal functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. These are reflected in many different branches of the law. For example, contract law governs agreements to exchange goods or services, such as a purchase of a bus ticket, and property law defines people’s ownership and duties toward tangible property, like houses, cars and books. Banking and financial regulation establishes minimum standards for the amount of capital banks must hold and rules about best practice in investing. Regulatory bodies also govern utilities such as water, energy and telecommunications, which used to be run by governments but are now largely private companies.

In the twentieth century, legal positivists such as Hans Kelsen argued that the law’s ability to impose sanctions is essential to its social functions. Twenty-first century legal scholars, however, such as Joseph Raz, argue that the coercive aspect of law is a much smaller part of its social function than these early legal thinkers assumed.

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