Law is a vast domain, comprising all the rules and principles that govern people’s lives. It shapes politics, economics and history in various ways. It also serves as a mediator between people and is one of the most important institutions in modern societies.
Law defines and regulates relationships between people, businesses, institutions and communities, while providing citizens with a framework to guide their behaviour and protect them from oppressive state power or private tyranny. It encompasses a broad range of subjects that are broadly divided into three main categories:
Contract law regulates agreements for the exchange of goods, services and anything else of value and covers everything from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law establishes people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (such as land or buildings) and intangible property (such as cars or bank accounts).
Criminal law defines crimes, their punishments and the process by which an offender is tried. Tort law compensates people when their property or person is harmed, for example in an automobile accident or by defamation of character. Public law deals with the management of government-owned assets, such as utilities or infrastructures like water, and relates to issues of corporate social responsibility. It is often a field of intense public debate.
Procedural law encompasses the rules that courts must follow when deciding a case, and it is important for ensuring that cases are heard fairly. For example, it stipulates which materials are admissible for evidence and what procedures should be followed when a citizen seeks compensation from the government in court.
The Rule of Law, as it is popularly understood, demands that citizens respect and obey the law, even when they disagree with it. This principle was formulated by philosophers like Aristotle and influenced legal theorists through the centuries, including the early modern English writers John Locke and James Harrington; the Enlightenment thinkers, Montesquieu and Niccolo Machiavelli; and the American constitutionalism of the Federalist Papers.
A methodological point about law is that it has a normative character, stating how people ought to behave or not, whereas empirical sciences have descriptive or causal properties (like the law of gravity). This characteristic creates tensions that are not present in other fields of knowledge.
Attempts to resolve these tensions have been varied and sometimes controversial. For example, some scholars (like Ronald Posner) argue that a legal system should rely on the insight of judges into new situations, rather than on strained analogies with old precedents. Other scholars (like James Moore) have argued that the Rule of Law requires more than just a judicial system. It must also be complemented by social institutions, communities and partnerships that support the law and provide a sense of legitimacy for the law’s role in society. This perspective is sometimes called civil society, and it contrasts with the more traditional view of the state as the source of law. It is an approach that is increasingly embraced by many legal pragmatists.