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The Role of Law

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Law is the set of rules that a state or other authority creates and enforces to control behavior. Unlike laws in the natural or social sciences (such as gravity, or a law of supply and demand), a legal rule has a normative element—it tells people how they should behave or what they must do to satisfy a legal claim. This makes law more complex from a methodological standpoint, and it often conflicts with other laws that have an empirical element—for example, laws of nature and the social science (such as economic) laws of man.

Legal systems vary widely from nation to nation, but there are some general principles that can be identified. A central role of law is to serve society by keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights and protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice and facilitating orderly social change. These are important functions, but some laws may not be in the best interests of society, such as those imposed by an authoritarian government that maintains power at the expense of its own people.

In some jurisdictions, the law is based on religious precepts, such as Jewish halakha and Islamic Sharia. Historically, religion played a significant role even in secular matters such as land disputes. In such cases, religious law was largely judicially elaborated through interpretation and Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and case law.

The law is also influenced by the culture and custom of the legal profession and society as a whole, including the families, groups and organizations that form its political basis. Changing attitudes and ideas on the role of the law also influence it. For example, Max Weber reshaped thinking about the relationship between law and bureaucracy by arguing that the extension of government’s military and bureaucratic power over citizens created special problems for accountability that did not exist in an era of feudalism.

The legal system is comprised of two main parts: civil law and criminal law. The former covers everything from car accidents and personal injury to property theft, while the latter includes crimes such as murder and robbery. Civil law also encompasses torts and contracts. Some areas of the law, such as commercial law and labor law, have their origins in the ancient Lex Mercatoria. Other areas, such as tax law, inherited from the common law of England and Ireland. Still other areas, such as corporate law and patent law, have their roots in a more modern codification of common law concepts. Finally, there is a growing body of administrative law that includes regulations made by governmental agencies.

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