Law, body of official rules and regulations, generally found in constitutions, legislation, judicial opinions, and the like, that is used to govern a society and to control the behavior of its members. The nature and functions of law have varied throughout history. In modern societies, some authorized body such as a legislature or a court makes the law. It is backed by the coercive power of the state, which enforces the law by means of appropriate penalties or remedies.
Formal legal rules and actions are usually distinguished from other means of social control and guides for behavior such as mores, morality, public opinion, and custom or tradition. Of course, a lawmaker may respond to public opinion or other pressures, and a formal law may prohibit what is morally unacceptable.
Law serves a variety of functions. Laws against crimes, for example, help to maintain a peaceful, orderly, relatively stable society. Courts contribute to social stability by resolving disputes in a civilized fashion. Property and contract laws facilitate business activities and private planning. Laws limiting the powers of government help to provide some degree of freedom that would not otherwise be possible. Law has also been used as a mechanism for social change; for instance, at various times laws have been passed to inhibit social discrimination and to improve the quality of individual life in matters of health, education, and welfare.
Some experts believe the popular view of law overemphasizes its formal, coercive aspects. They point out that if a custom or norm is assured of judicial backing, it is, for practical purposes, law. On the other hand, a statute that is neither obeyed nor enforced is empty law. Social attitudes toward the formal law are a significant part of the law in process. The role of law in China and Japan, for example, is somewhat different from its role in Western nations. Respect for the processes of law is low, at least outside matters of business and industry. Tradition looms much larger in everyday life. Resort to legal resolution of a dispute is truly a last resort, with conciliation being the mechanism that is preferred for social control.
Law is not completely a matter of human enactment; it also includes natural law. The best-known version of this view, that God’s law is supreme, has had considerable influence in the United States and other Western societies. The civil rights movement, for example, was at least partially inspired by the belief in natural law. Such a belief seems implicit in the view that law should serve to promote human dignity, as for instance by the enforcement of equal rights for all. Muslim societies also embrace a kind of natural law, which is closely linked to the religion of Islam.
Legislature, branch of government empowered to make, change, or repeal its laws and to levy and regulate its taxes. Most modern legislatures are representative: composed of many members who are chosen directly or indirectly by popular vote. Legislatures that provide direct representation are usually considered more democratic in practice because they are less susceptible to being dominated by a single faction.
Nearly all modern governments have a bicameral, or two-house, legislature. The so-called lower house is generally elected on a basis of direct representation; and the upper house commonly on a basis either of indirect representation or of direct representation limited to certain occupational, territorial, or hereditary categories. The traditional theoretical justification for an upper house is that it can exercise moderation and delay on legislation by the lower house and thus restrain the effects of impulsive or excessive fluctuations of public opinion. A few governments, however, including that of the state of Nebraska, have unicameral, or single-house, legislatures.
The various legislatures throughout the world are known by different names, such as Congress, Parliament, Knesset, Diet, and Assembly. Most are limited in their powers by the Constitution or organic law of the government of which they are a part. The enactments of the U.S. Congress, for example, can be vetoed by the president, and the Congress must approve by a two-thirds majority any bill it wishes to pass despite a presidential veto. The British Parliament, on the other hand, chooses its own prime minister and cabinet, who are ultimately responsible to it for all their administrative actions. Being legislative as well as executive or administrative leaders, these officials have considerable power to initiate and influence legislation desired by their administrative departments. The tendency in most modern governments has been toward increasing assumption of legislative powers by administrative officials, with a consequent weakening of the legislatures. Many political scientists ascribe this to growing public impatience with the uncertainties of party politics within legislatures. The trend is also attributed to the increasing complexity of modern government, which requires the use of people with specialized skills, often not found in publicly elected legislatures, for the drafting of laws.