As Tina Turner famously sang, “What’s law got to do with it?” 3 Where does law fit in to our society? First, law gives us security—security that we will not be killed, hurt, robbed or otherwise treated illegally. The force of the state is deployed to restrain the force of individuals. This security allows us to carry out productive activities and to enjoy life without expending excessive resources on maintaining our security. Legal argument and analysis helps us to determine what protections are available to us.
Second, law facilitates relationships in our increasingly complex society. We live in a dense society with complicated relationships and complex production of complex goods and services. While this complexity sometimes is dispiriting, it allows us to have efficient production and to have a better material life. Law, along with other rules, helps us to manage complexity. It allows us to have more complex relationships, allowing us to be more productive.
That’s why law is important to society generally, but why is it important to you?
It is important for you to know the protections available to you against harm to your person, your property, or your organization, and to be able to advocate for yourself in these regards. Law is concerned with the allocation of responsibility, and you will from time to time need to argue with others about their responsibilities, as well as about yours.
By complying with the law, you will avoid the costly application of the force of the state. By seeking to have the law apply to those with whom you disagree, you can bring to bear on them the force of the state in order to cause them to behave properly and to keep their promises. Thus, the force of the state will be applied, in accordance with the law, to prevent violence, theft, fraud, and other bad and inefficient behaviors. Law is important because it establishes the terms under which the state will apply its force—by which society has agreed through the state and the law how the coercive power of the state can be used.
This is why novelist Mario Puzo has Don Corleone, The Godfather, say, “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” The lawyer has in his briefcase the texts that will determine who wins and who loses. These texts—contracts, statutes, constitutions, and treaties—are not just words, but words that carry the force of the state. Therefore, the lawyer has in his briefcase, properly used, the force of the state, which in most places is stronger than a hundred men with guns.
Legal rules are formal rules, established according to constitutional procedures, that carry the force of the state. Law is important because, in a society based on the rule of law, it channels the force of the state. This is why society has developed such sophisticated techniques for arguing over the application of law.