Law is a collection of socially and governmentalally sanctioned rules designed to regulate behavior. The precise definition of “law” is a subject of long-standing debate. A central controversy concerns the relative importance of law’s function as coercive or non-coercive. Hans Kelsen, for example, believed that the monopolization of violence by a legally sanctioned authority was essential to law’s ability to fulfill its social functions. However, twentieth century legal positivists like H.L.A Hart and Joseph Raz argue that the coercive aspect of law is not as important as previous thinkers have assumed.
Besides its core functional role, law also reflects society’s values and norms. For this reason, the study of law is a source of rich scholarly inquiry into such areas as philosophy, history, economic analysis and sociology.
In a modern society, the laws governing everyday life are incredibly complex. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods, services and money; property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible (such as land and buildings) and intangible property (such as money, books, and vehicles); criminal law prosecutes behaviors considered harmful to society; and civil law resolves lawsuits between individuals or organizations.
The very nature of law raises important issues about accountability and democracy. For instance, how does a government ensure that its laws are not abused by those with military or bureaucratic power? Should laws be written in ways that are clear to all citizens? What is the best balance between protecting privacy and ensuring freedom of speech? The answers to these questions are as diverse as the many different types of laws that exist in the world.
For most of human history, the law has been largely a product of political action. In nations ruled by authoritarian governments, law often fails to serve its fundamental purposes: maintain peace and stability, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice, and provide for orderly social change. In contrast, stable democracies generally allow the law to perform these basic functions well.
As the world becomes more interconnected, international law has grown in importance. In a global economy, the need for enforceable contracts, a common system of arbitration, and other forms of legal security has created demand for an international governing body that is as flexible as the law itself.
The development of law is closely linked with social and cultural changes. For example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, countries that were colonized by continental European nations adopted new civil law traditions from those nations. These new systems were often codified into legal codes, making it easy for judges to understand and apply them. Today, many of these old civil law traditions are still in force in Africa and Asia, and they coexist with common law systems in the United States and some Pacific islands. Moreover, in a number of places, religious law, based on Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, is still practiced alongside common law. Likewise, an increasing number of nations have begun to incorporate elements of the European-influenced commercial law into their legal system.