Law is the set of rules that a society or government develops to govern its people. It covers issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. Law is also a field of study for scholars who examine the history and development of laws as well as their philosophical, sociological, and economic analyses.
The concept of law as a system of regulating the behavior of human beings is one of the central themes that runs through most of Western history and that still permeates modern thought, although in different forms. Law is based on the premise that human beings are not simply animals that react instinctively to their surroundings, but that they have a rational capacity for self-determination that can be developed through education, training and experience. Law tries to balance the need for order with individual liberty by establishing limits that allow individuals some degree of freedom within the framework of what is reasonable, fair and just.
Law can be made through a legislative process in civil law jurisdictions, or it may be imposed by the executive branch in the form of decrees and regulations, or it can come from judges through precedent in common law systems. The latter is an especially important source of law since it allows future cases to be decided more easily based on previous court decisions. This system is often referred to as stare decisis.
Aside from the governmental aspects of law, many people have private legal arrangements in place that they use to settle disputes and disagreements with one another. This may include the use of contractual agreements, arbitration agreements and settlements. This type of dispute resolution has become increasingly popular since the financial crisis of 2008, and the trend may continue to gain momentum.
Ultimately, the existence of laws is an expression of the underlying political system. The authority to make and enforce laws is granted by the sovereign, which can be a nation-state or an organization such as a church. The law reflects that authority in its structure and content, but it can also be challenged and changed by revolutions or aspirations for greater democracy or more rights for citizens.
From a methodological standpoint, the concept of law is very complex, because it encompasses normative statements in addition to descriptive ones. This is distinct from empirical science (such as the law of gravity) or even social science (such as the law of demand and supply in economics). Holmes argues that this makes the law a difficult subject for empirical verification.