What is a law?

Most people think a law is anything passed by a legislative body. If true, then how could the Nuremberg Trials rule that Nazi “laws” were illegal? It’s helpful to understand…

  • Legislation is not the same thing as law
  • Legislation is only law if it conforms to universal morality
  • Universal morality is any standard about which everyone agrees

For instance, everyone agrees that fraud, stealing, assault, and murder are immoral. We know this because…
Even people who commit these acts don’t want others to do these things to them.
And that’s about it in terms of moral principles with which all humans agree. Thus…
Only prohibitions against fraud and initiated force can qualify as laws.
Now you can see how the Nuremberg Trials could rightfully find Nazi laws illegal. And hopefully you can understand why libertarians consider most statist legislation to be unlawful.
You will both think and express yourself better if you never use the word “law” to describe anything other than statutes against acts of fraud or initiated force. Sadly…
Judged by this standard, most legislation is not actually lawful. Most legislation initiates force. Politicians impose one group’s personal preferences on everyone else, using threats of violence. That is not law. It is not justice. It is criminal behavior. So use better words to describe such enactments. Call them…

  • Unlawful acts
  • Criminal dictates
  • Statutes
  • Mere legislation

Or, if you simply must use the word law when referring to immoral legislation, put the word in scare quotes, “law.”

Jim Babka

About the Author

Jim Babka

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Jim Babka is co-founder of the Zero Aggression Project and President of DownsizeDC.org, Inc. He’s an author and former talk show host.
Previously, he was the President of RealCampaignReform.org, Inc., defending free press rights all the way to the Supreme Court. He and Susie are the proud, home-schooling parents of three teenagers. He enjoys theology, UFC, target practice, and Tai Chi.

Perry Willis

About the Author

Perry Willis

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Perry Willis is the co-founder of the Zero Aggression Project and Downsize DC. He was the National Director of the Libertarian National Committee on two occasions, and ran two Libertarian Party presidential campaigns. He has an extensive background in marketing and fundraising, and has ghost written direct mail appeals for numerous luminaries, including Karl Hess, Ron Paul, Charlton Heston and Harry Browne.

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Show Comments 23


  1. Definitions of law from Dictionary.com are:
    the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision.
    any written or positive rule or collection of rules prescribed under the authority of the state or nation, as by the people in its constitution.
    Changing your definition of the word “law” does not mean I must change it, nor are most people likely to change it.
    Also, immoral people (read Sociopaths or Psycopaths) may not want others to do to them what they do to others, but that does not mean they see these things as immoral. Rather, they may not consider the issue of morals at all.
    And what good is the universality of accepted morality if it degrades (as we see it happening all around us)?
    Further, are the Ten Commandments laws?

    1. Post

      Thanks for your comments and questions Michael.
      I have no quarrel with your dictionary definition insofar as it reflects common usage and understanding. I agree. That is indeed how people commonly understand and use the word law. My quarrel is that the common understanding involves self-contradictions. Stealing is against the law, but many “laws” sanction theft. The Nazis passed many “laws,” but the Nuremberg Trials declared many of them unlawful. The examples of this problem are truly endless. So my aim is to point out these contradictions, and suggest better usages that avoid self-contradiction.
      You are quite right that people may choose to ignore my suggested definitions. But so what? I can’t control what people do. I can only control what I do. And I focus on trying to use words and concepts in ways that avoid self-contradiction. I hope that people will follow my example. I act as I do with regard to language because I understand that meanings change over time. They are susceptible to exactly the kind of suggestion I made in this article.
      I think you are wrong about sociopaths. My understanding is that they do agree that their actions are immoral. They just don’t care. But even if I am wrong about that, it is still the case that their position involves…wait for it…self-contradiction. Thus, their opinion about morality need not be respected by non-sociopaths.
      The good of a universally accepted moral principle is that you can point out people’s self-contradiction when they make political exceptions to such principles.
      Please notice my repeated use of the phrase self-contradiction. It is the key to everything.

      1. Stealing is against the law. Because there are other laws you call stealing does not in any way speak to the law that stealing is wrong. Sorry Perry, your words fail like an old car.

    2. Michael, The dictionary definition, in this instance, is merely evidence that the misuse of this word is very widespread. That’s not what interests me enough to reply, however.
      I believe the Ten Commandments ARE laws. They are laws, in the sense that they explain our relational duties. It is wrong to make my employee work on his sabbath, for example. But that doesn’t mean that The State should enforce each of the Ten Commandments. There shouldn’t be a sabbath law, enforced by police or the criminal justice system. The consequences of violating that law are more natural, as in…

      “We are not punished for our sins, but by them.” – Elbert Hubbard

      The “law” we’re dealing with (in this post) is not about duties we have, as humans. This post is constrained to what is enforceable with self-defense or criminal justice. I was hoping that much was clear, and now it should be.

      1. Jim, I would argue that there is a natural law. This means something that is self-evident. The Ten Commandments are the heart of natural law.

    3. “Further, are the Ten Commandments laws?” (sorry scare quotes are customary here).
      According to this mental lever, which I agree with, no – with a few exceptions.
      Most of the people of the world have “other gods before Him”
      Much of the people of the world “make idols”
      Both believers and nonbelievers regularly “take the name of the LORD your God in vain”
      Many do not “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”
      Many seldom “Honor your father and your mother”
      In some faiths it is okay to murder your family members if they “dishonor” the family.
      Adultery is legal in most Christian nations (and most non-Christian too).
      Stealing is the only one that seems universal, nobody likes a thief so, score one for the big ten.
      Lying about your neighbors is only marginally illegal.
      Coveting? I’m not even going to bother.

      1. Kevin, you make the mistake Perry above also makes. That these laws are broken does not “prove” they are not laws. In fact the opposite is true. You cannot disprove these laws by demonstrating those who fail to follow them – that actually proves their worth.

    4. Mr. Kitchen,
      This has been my understanding of “law” for pretty much my entire adult life.
      There’s ample evidence the government itself sees it this way. For example they will tell you USC Title 26 is not “law,” but CFR Title 26 is “law,” the latter so by virtue of the Paperwork Reduction Act and printed notices in the Federal Register… which scheme itself is, alas, not law. (though here gov’t insists it is, as it’s the basis of near everything they call “law” anymore)
      An error, no matter how widely accepted or implemented by the heaviest of hands, is nonetheless an error, i.e. not “law.” There are no “seat belt laws” for instance.

    5. Thank you, Michael for your insight. Your points of view are valuable to the conversation about Law. When you looked up “Law” on Dictionary.Com did you read about the origin of the word?
      I ask this as a plainly stated question and not as some rhetorical question who’s intent is to create conflict between us. The reason behind my question is because it’s answer proves the point when the following question is then asked. Do words have specific meanings?
      Yes, they do.
      Words give substance to ideas, thoughts in our head we wish to communicate. If I use “rose” and describe a pine tree I’m not going to get a rose from you to give to my wife, am I?
      Dictionaries, as has been stated, do not define words because words did not proceed ideas, but rather ideas define words. Therefore, a dictionary may tell you the common definition of a word as it is commonly understood today but will not help you understand a 10th Century scholarly text. So either we are left to redefine words or try to maintain their meaning.
      Karl Marx believed that it was important to redefine words in order to change the way people think. People are still trying to do it.
      Want to understand the word “law” don’t look to the dictionary. Read Fredrick Bastiat’s The Law. See what a 19th century man thought might happen if the Law was perverted and see if it came true or not.

      1. Lucky,
        Perhaps it has been too long since I read the Holy Bible, however I have a distinct memory that The Ten Commandments were actually “God’s Law”. Of course there are some 612 (I think that is the right number) other “Commandments” in the Holy Bible as well.
        The usage of the word “Commandment” is the tell that you are being commanded to obey, which is very similar in usage today when someone of “authority” tells you to do something. They aren’t asking you, nor are they making a suggestion to you, they are commanding you to do so.
        I think if your assessment was correct, it would be called “The Ten Suggestions”, “The Ten Keys to Living a Moral Life”, or perhaps, and I say this tongue in cheek, “The Ten Ways to Anger God and Be Smited”. My apologies to anyone offended by the last one.

  2. That’s a big score for Kevin Jackson and I believe in the 10 “Commandments”. I put that in quotes because most Christians don’t know how to defend that part of Torah because they abolished it long ago. If you want to know what those 10 things were, ask anyone Messianic…

  3. I’ve long employed this distinction — although in argumentation, I’m willing to stop at the (morally imperfect) US Constitution as defining law, if necessary, in these united States. If only government respected the rule of law…

  4. i like this common sense [folksy] description of LEGISLATIVE [i.e., man-made] law[s]:
    “an OPINION [as opposed to a fact] of a majority of elected imperfect humans that is enFORCEd by the use-of-a-gun.”

  5. I have an issue with the universal acceptance of certain moral precepts as laws. Not just psycho/socio-paths, but people who are naturally contrary, and people who are significant need (such as starving) and see an advantage to assuage their need with little damage to another (such as stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery). These people aren’t mentally ill. These people simply have chosen to refine their morality in such a way as to allow them to violate the moral precepts of others.
    There is no Universal moral precepts in the real world for this very reason, and this is in fact the wedge issue that allows Statism to get started and accelerated – the Nazis would not have been embraced by the Germans if it had not been for their economic/social needs not being met by the current conditions.

    1. Post

      Thanks for your comment JJ Grey. I think it remains the case that people who can find excuses to steal from others do not want others to steal from them.

  6. The ratification of Article six of the Constitution for the united States of America by the necessary nine states needed at the time, clearly defines itself as the “supreme law”. All other enactments are merely legislative “Public Policy”, such as the UCC, enacted to provide guidelines for conduct in daily contractual intercourse.

    1. Hey Dick,
      I’m not a big fan of the Constitution, since I sit squarely in the Spooner camp, however, as I read Article VI, it would appear to the me the following. The “supreme Law of the Land” (notice the difference between the common noun, “law”, and the proper noun “Law of the Land”, but this could also be due to the varying levels of education at the time, since there are many grammatical mistakes in the Constitution) is The Constitution, the Laws of the United States (which are made pursuant to The Constitution), and the Treaties made under the Authority of the United States, and that these Laws must not be contrary to The Constitution or to the Laws of the States.
      While I agree that the UCC is a valuable tool, it needs to also be said that in order for it to have the effect of Law, that is to bind everyone to it, it must be included with every contract, or else it binds no one. Such is the case of the Constitution that binds no one, since they sign nothing, however many government officials do swear to it, but I’d prefer to see it in writing.

  7. what verifiable evidence, truths, facts, is there that anyone can produce – as opposed to ‘opinions’ such as:
    “Well, it’s always been that way.” [an appeal to antiquity], or,
    “Everybody knows that.” [an appeal to popularity], or,
    “That’s a stupid question.” [ad hominem; an appeal to diversion from the question],
    all fallacious contentions… …that the constitution, rules, codes, etc., apply to you, me, or anyone else?
    This question has been asked of doctored law professors, lawyers, including prosecutors, ‘high ranking’ people in the ‘police’ profession, judges, internal revenue ‘management’ in several countries including the u.s., without any of them producing an answer – either due to ignorance, feigning lack of knowledge or, circular [fallacious] arguments.
    If the law does NOT apply to you then… how can you be guilty of breaking that law?!
    Only verifiable facts are “evidence”!

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