What Is Law?

The law provides a way for people to resolve their differences peacefully and ensures that society is orderly. It also protects people’s liberties and rights by establishing standards and ensuring that the government is not overreaching its power. The law consists of a variety of branches, such as contracts and property laws. Each has specific rules that regulate a particular aspect of daily life, such as the requirement that drivers wear seatbelts or that landlords keep their buildings in good repair.

In countries with “common law” legal systems, judicial decisions are explicitly recognized as “law” on equal footing with statutes passed through the legislative process and regulations issued by executive branch agencies. This is known as the “doctrine of stare decisis” and helps to assure that similar cases reach similar outcomes. In contrast, countries with “civil law” systems use codes that reorganize Roman and customary law into more systematic forms for easier application.

The precise definition of law is a matter of ongoing debate. One view is that it consists of the individual’s rational choice in a given situation based on her experience (broadly defined to include first hand experiences and stories she has heard). Another is Holmes’ ontological understanding of law, that is, a flowing process in which participants’ probability estimates are updated as they learn from experience. The resulting narratives are then codified into “law.” A third approach is to see law as a set of rules and institutions created and enforced by social or governmental authorities for the purpose of regulating behavior.

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