Law is the collection of rules created and enforced by a government or social institution to regulate behaviour. Historically, this has included a system of punishments to deter people from breaking the rules. Modern legal systems also regulate the economic and social fabric of a nation by establishing taxes, labour laws, and property rights.
For example, when two neighbours dispute over a boundary line, the courts can determine who owns what and decide how to proceed peacefully. Whether or not the legal system is effective at achieving these goals depends on whether it is fair and transparent to all parties. This is a matter of opinion, but many scholars and ordinary citizens would say that our legal system is not always fair or transparent.
The precise definition of law is a subject of intense debate. One definition, advanced by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, argues that law is simply a betting system that predicts what bad men will do. The logic of this argument is that if the law is sufficiently reliable, it will deter bad behaviour and promote the public interest.
Law aims to achieve four fundamental objectives: setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Each of these objectives has a number of sub-goals. For instance, tort law aims to compensate individuals who have been harmed by others, whether it is damage caused by an automobile accident or libel. Criminal law aims to maintain the social order by punishing those who violate its principles.
Similarly, employment law protects the right of workers to bargain collectively and strike, while property law aims to protect private ownership of land. In countries that use common law, judges are guided by decisions made in previous cases. In contrast, countries that follow civil law have codes defining the categories and rules of a particular case.
Some law is not formally codified but is based on custom and tradition or on the will of deities. The emergence of these systems of law is often marked by great social change.
For example, the growth of social democracy and communism has meant that laws relating to labour, equality and the state of nature have become more entrenched. While these laws are not necessarily perfect, they do provide a basic level of protection for all citizens.