The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: In just over 1000 words, this entry defines law, carefully distinguishes between the general concept and state law specifically, introduces the notion of primary and secondary levels of law, and differentiates between public and private law.
The entry defines law as a normative order in the prescriptive sense because it sets standards for human conduct and its critical judgment. Coerciveness, although often taken as a necessary component of law, is not a mark of law generally. It is, however, a mark of state law because states are coercive associations. The remainder of the entry focuses on state law.
Drawing on the work of H.L.A. Hart, the entry distinguishes between a primary and a secondary level of law. The first level focuses on appropriate standards for interpersonal conduct while the secondary level establishes institutions aimed at monitoring primary standards. The primary level is an attribute of all law, but the secondary level applies specifically to state law. Taken as a whole, in fact, secondary level institutions comprise the state.
Next the entry differentiates between public and private law. Public law is secondary level law concerned with state institutions. Examples of public law include constitutional law, administrative law, taxation and welfare. Private law, conversely, is concerned with relationships between private individuals where state agencies are no more than bystanders. In the sphere of private law relationships, the state is the guarantor of rights and the enforcer of duties.
The entry concludes by briefly pondering whether the essence of law can be positively described in terms of rules and institutions, or whether it requires also moral considerations.