Law is the set of rules that a society adopts and enforces to govern behaviour. It is the basis for social stability and order. It protects individual rights and regulates businesses and finances. Law shapes politics, economics and history and provides a framework for relationships between people.
The law is an important subject of study for many disciplines, including philosophy, sociology and psychology. It is also a key topic in political science and economic analysis. It raises questions about equality and justice. In most nation-states (as they are sometimes called) laws are made by a government and applied to all its citizens. This distinguishes them from other institutions which may make decisions for their members, such as religions and corporations. The study of the laws of a particular country is known as jurisprudence.
There are many different areas of law, which are often grouped together under the heading of legal practice. For example, family law covers marriage and divorce proceedings and the rights of children. Criminal law deals with conduct considered harmful to society and which can lead to imprisonment. Civil law handles lawsuits and disputes between individuals. The law is a source of controversy, with debates about how it should be written and implemented.
Some areas of law are closely related, for example tax law and banking law. These are part of the wider field of financial regulation, which is aimed at protecting investors and preventing large financial crises like the Wall Street crash of 1929. Other areas of law are more specialised, such as space law and property law.
The nature of law is complex, as it involves a combination of normative statements and descriptive facts. Normative statements are commands or prohibitions, telling people how they should behave. They cannot be proved by empirical evidence, as in the case of the law of gravity or the law of supply and demand. But the evidence of experience, interpreted by observers, is what defines the law and makes it a living, evolving process.
The law is shaped by the customs and practices of a society, as well as by its politics, economy and history. It also reflects the aspirations of its leaders and the societies they are trying to govern. It is a contested subject, with frequent revolts against existing political-legal authority. These are not always successful, but they show the importance of law in shaping human lives. The study of law is wide ranging, covering topics from ancient history to contemporary political theory and economics. It also has relevance for philosophical and religious questions about how society should be organised. Ultimately, however, it is up to the people who live under the law to decide how it should be interpreted and applied.