Mar 28, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Many people with law degrees pursue careers in politics. At the same time, many people who major in political science end up in law school. While these two fields are interconnected, they’re not the same thing. Here’s a closer look at politics and law, why they’re different, and how they fit together.

Defining the Terms

The Oxford English Dictionary defines politics as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.”   

But what, exactly, does this mean in the real world? Proposes Macmillan International Higher Education, “Politics is exciting because people disagree. They disagree about how they should live. Who should get what? How should power and other resources be distributed? Should society be based on cooperation or conflict? And so on. They also disagree about how such matters should be resolved. How should collective decisions be made? Who should have a say? How much influence should each person have? And so forth. For Aristotle, this made politics the ‘master science’: that is, nothing less than the activity through which human beings attempt to improve their lives and create the Good Society. Politics is, above all, a social activity. It is always a dialogue, and never a monologue.”

Law, meanwhile, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of its penalties.”

Ben’s Guide breaks it down into simpler terms, “We can better understand the law when we understand our communities. Laws teach us how to behave properly and inform us of the rules we all must follow. So first, we need to know what a law is, who makes the laws, and how laws are made… Imagine that you and your family are sitting down to play a game. First, you would need to know the rules. Someone in your family would read the rules of the game aloud. Then, you would clearly understand how to play. The rules, just like laws, tell us how to play fairly and how to make sure that everyone is treated in the same way.”

The difference between policies and laws in a government context, therefore? Proposes the Education & Training Unit for Democracy & Development (ETU), “A policy outlines what a government ministry hopes to achieve and the methods and principles it will use to achieve them.  It states the goals of the ministry. A policy document is not a law but it will often identify new laws needed to achieve its goals….Laws set out standards, procedures and principles that must be followed. If a law is not followed, those responsible for breaking them can be prosecuted in court.”

In other words, the former sets forth a goal, while laws may be the means to that end.

The Intersection of Politics and Law

We know that politics informs law, but it’s also worth noting that the converse is also true. Contend Keith E. Whittington, R. Daniel Kelemen, and Gregory A. Caldeira in The Study of Law and Politics, “Law is one of the central products of politics and the prize over which many political struggles are waged. The early American jurist James Wilson observed that law is the “great sinew of government.”  It is the principal instrument by which the government exerts its will on society, and as such it might be thought to lie (at least indirectly) close to the heart of the study of politics. But law is also the means by which the government organizes itself. It is law in this second mode, sometimes called public law, that has attracted independent attention. Here law is not only the product of politics but also constitutive of politics.”

Careers in Politics and Law

Thinking of pursuing a career as a lawyer or politician? It’s important to know that most countries require lawyers to attend law school and pass a bar exam where they intend to practice.

While politicians do not have these requirements, this doesn’t mean anyone can be a politician. Many have law or business degrees. Others have studied related fields like political science, business, economics or international relations. Still others have a history of military service. Furthermore, most politicians face another hurdle: getting elected.

Perhaps DifferenceBetween.net best encapsulates the difference (and yet sameness) between law and politics in asserting, “Laws are for the people, and policies are made in the name of the people.”  Certainly, the work they do is vital: politicians and lawyers play crucial roles in shaping society, maintaining law and order, and helping nations move forward. The takeaway? While both professions may sometimes be viewed harshly in the public eye, this may only be because they’re -- by nature -- held to the highest standard.












Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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