What Is Law?

Law is the collective set of rules and principles that form a framework to guarantee that a society functions in a harmonious and equitable manner. It dictates what is and isn’t permissible, explains how violations are punished and rewards awarded. It shapes politics, economics, history and culture in various ways and acts as mediator of relations between people. Laws are created by governments, and a nation’s political landscape differs widely from place to place. It is important to know who has the power to make and enforce laws, as well as who has a legal right to defend them or challenge them. Revolutions and rebellions against existing political-legal authority are common, with aspirations for democratic rule and greater rights for citizens a recurrent theme in world politics.

Different definitions of law exist, which are influenced by a variety of factors, including philosophy, history, tradition and legal technique. Some philosophers, like John Austin, define law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to people as political subjects”; others, such as Jeremy Bentham and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that law reflects essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature. Other philosophers, such as Max Weber, reshaped thinking on the extension of state power by pointing out that law is socially constructed and subject to continuous renewal.

The vast and varied fields of law encompass everything from the rules of driving, to family and inheritance law, to medical jurisprudence and transactional law to the constitutional and administrative processes that give legitimacy to the law. Immigration and nationality law deals with the rights of foreigners to live in a country that is not their own, the acquisition or loss of citizenship and the question of stateless individuals. Labour law covers the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade unions, involving such issues as minimum wage or health and safety regulations. Criminal law is concerned with punishing offenders, and tort law seeks compensation for injuries incurred as a result of one’s behaviour, whether through an automobile accident or defamation.

In addition, the law also reflects a particular society’s values and customs, such as a country’s tolerance of sexual harassment or its desire to ensure that all people have access to justice regardless of wealth or status. Laws are also constantly changing, as new technologies emerge and older ones become obsolete. This constant renewal and adaptation is what makes the law such a fascinating subject to study. The United States Code is an official compilation and codification of federal statutes, arranged by subject matter. It includes the laws of the United States, as well as laws of the individual states and territories. Its organization and arrangement is intended to facilitate research. The Code is updated every six years. This publication, along with cumulative supplements, is published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives.