The law is a system of rules created and made enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. Regardless of its exact nature, law is one of the foundations upon which society stands and the basis for the rights and duties of citizens. It requires that people respect and comply with legal norms, accept decisions of the courts when their interests conflict with those of others and protect themselves against abuses of power. It also demands the independence of the judiciary, transparency of government business and integrity of legal procedures.
The heritage of law’s philosophical debate stretches back millennia, from Aristotle’s work on the concept of justice, through medieval theorists such as Richard Foxe, John Locke and Niccolo Machiavelli and the European Enlightenment writers like Montesquieu and John Adams. It continues to reshape thinking today in the work of Max Weber, who questioned traditional ideas of the state’s extension into civil society and of the relationship between the individual citizen and the authority of the state.
Modern law is a vast subject, covering virtually every aspect of human life in some way or another. It is often divided into three broad areas for convenience, though the subjects intertwine and overlap: labour law focuses on the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade unions; criminal and civil procedure are concerned with the rules that govern how trials and appeals proceed; and evidence law is the study of which materials can be admitted into court as valid proof in cases.
Other areas of law include environmental and tax laws. Environmental laws regulate the exploitation of natural resources and prohibit the emission of pollutants; tax laws set minimum standards for corporate taxes, value added taxes and other types of levies. Banking and financial law sets rules for granting loans, regulating capital investment and preventing bank runs. Banking laws also require banks to maintain minimum capital reserves.
There are also laws governing space travel, which cover everything from manned flights to private spacecraft to the use of outer space. Law is even involved in our online activities, with cyberlaw examining how to protect personal data, such as passwords and email addresses, and with privacy laws.
A key element in any law course is teaching students to understand the parliamentary process by which bills become laws. The basic principle is that a representative sponsors a bill and it is then assigned to a committee for study. If released from the committee, it can be debated and voted on in the House of Representatives; once a bill is passed by the House and signed into law by the president (or repassed over the president’s veto), it becomes law. This basic legislative process has been criticised as inherently corrupt, since the people who sponsor and vote on bills are often the same powerful officials to whom the Rule of Law is supposed to offer a counterweight.