The Concept of National Law and the Rule of Recognition

49 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2002

See all articles by Melvin A. Eisenberg

Melvin A. Eisenberg

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law


It is a commonly held position that a rule cannot be a legal rule unless it is binding; or to put it differently, that one element that distinguishes legal rules from other kinds of rules is that legal rules are regarded as binding by duly constituted officials - typically, courts - who are called upon to apply them. Similarly, it is an often-held position that the law consists of the rules of a jurisdiction that are duly enacted or adopted by officials who have the power to make rules that are binding in the jurisdiction. The thesis of this article is that both positions are incorrect.

I begin by developing a concept that I call national law. The concept of national law is that there is a body of law in the United States that is made by officials across jurisdictions, legal scholars, and scholarly institutions, which constitutes law despite the fact that it is not binding in, and is not necessarily made by, officials of a deciding jurisdiction. Examples of national law are the rules that a donative promise is enforceable if relied upon, that an acceptance is effective on dispatch, and that the remedy for breach of a bargain contract is expectation damages. National law is law because, as I show, under the practice of the legal profession, particularly the courts, the rules of national law (and not simply the reasons for those rules) are invoked as legal rules of decision.

Next, I take the concept of a rule of recognition as a postulate, and develop the following four principles concerning the meaning, application, and scope of that concept, which are independent of, but exemplified by, the concept of national law: (1) The social group that must accept a secondary rule for the rule to constitute a rule of recognition is the legal profession, rather than simply judges and other officials. (2) Whether the legal profession accepts a secondary rule as a rule of recognition can be determined by examining the kinds of primary rules that are invoked by the profession as legal rules in resolving legal issues in general, and deciding cases in particular. (3) A rule can be a legal rule even though it is not binding. (4) In the United States, law is made not only by judges and other officials of the deciding jurisdiction, but also by the national judiciary, legal scholars, and professional institutions (in particular, the American Law Institute).

Suggested Citation

Eisenberg, Melvin A., The Concept of National Law and the Rule of Recognition. Available at SSRN: or

Melvin A. Eisenberg (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Law Building
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States
510-642-1799 (Phone)
510-643-2672 (Fax)

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