88 Comments

The argument that you only have a 0.5–2% chance of being arrested is not really accurate. If you're not a gang member, don't have gang tattoos, or are not associated with gangs, then your probability of being arrested would be around 0.01% or less. The El Salvadoran Bryan Caplan would not have gang tattoos or be associated with the criminal underworld. For law-abiding people, this hardly, if at all, affects them negatively.

Your point regarding the slow creep of state power and corruption is a fair one, and in the long term, they should be moving towards stronger institutions that can carry out fair trials while maintaining harsh punishments.

I think people underestimate just how different the criminal underclass is to ordinary people and what a menace they are to society if not properly controlled.

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The US should abolish all "recreational" drug laws and trash the DEA and its state and local equivalents. That would decrease crime globally as profits would greatly drop. And decrease greatly bloated govt power. Bukele's dangerous utilitarianism would not be needed.

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Bryan, I feel like I shouldn't have to explain this to someone as generally anti-statist as you, but this is awfully shortsighted.

The big danger here is not that some innocent young tattooed guys might get caught up in the anti-gang sweeps. The big danger is that if Bukele can tell the police "go round up all the young tattooed guys, don't worry about due process," then he can also tell them "go round up all the journalists who write articles critical of the government, don't worry about due process." And then, among many other problems, his political incentive to actually keep crime low is gone, because if crime goes back up, the people who might protest against that are going to be in jail, or keep silent for fear of jail. Authoritarian leaders suppress dissent like this under the guise of crime prevention all the time, so this isn't some speculative hypothetical.

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I think it would strengthen Caplan's argument to point out that the gang members are effectively an army in uniform, and as such are enemy combatants. It's a grey area to be sure, but things in El Salvador seem to be pretty far from usual criminal situations and closer to civil war or warlord led banditry.

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This logic seems applicable to Bryan's interest in open borders.

If Bryan is OK with the government of El Salvador imprisoning large numbers of their own citizens without due process, then how could you possibly defend allowing the same people to enter the USA?

So a minimum reasonable standard for immigration rules to the USA is - if we don't like your tattoos, you can't come in? Extend that to any other sorts of profiling about who is desirable and who isn't and you are very quickly a long way from anything like open borders, and a lot closer to what I think most people intuitively prefer as their immigration policy, which is relatively small numbers, highly selected for the most skilled and most compatible with existing society.

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I won't pretend to be an expert on El; Salvador's situation... but I feel certain that a lot of criticism from liberals and the NGO crowd are based on THEIR comfortable lives and elite statuses. It's easy to lecture poorer countries who are fighting for their lives.

Law and order is the basis for all civilization... civil rights are a wonderful luxury that can only exist AFTER law and order has been established... https://open.substack.com/pub/jmpolemic/p/bukeles-rebuke?r=1neg52&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&showWelcomeOnShare=true

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An interesting aside:

At times in the 20th century there used to be a lot of turf wars between gangs in cities in the US. They fought over who could vend drugs in the streets.

You don't see nearly as much of that anymore partially thanks to mobile phones. Drug vendors don't have to hawk their wares on street corners anymore, so they are harder for gangs to police. So territorial control became almost meaningless.

I suspect a similar dynamic might be at play with prostitution, too?

It's a shame that territoial control apparently still makes a huge difference in the countries along the supply chains for various drugs.

I wonder what, if any, technological changes might influence this in the future? As a sociological change, perhaps Latin American just legalising (and taxing) the production of drugs for export would help?

I specifically mention for export, they don't have to legalise drugs domestically. (Even though many people will see that as hypocrisy.)

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Feb 12·edited Feb 12

Well written and though I don't fault your logic or rationalization here and simply disagree with the morality of it, I wanted to call out to things:

"At least for violent crimes, you probably think that First World criminal justice systems are comfortably above this cutoff. ". The key word there which I think you underplayed and most will miss is "violent". We got a lot of non-violent criminals, including actual innocents, doing life, or effectively so, to the point I'd say the US probably has the lowest cutoff in the world and that is a giant problem. The criminal narrative is fueled about violent offenders but what most people fail to grasp is prison, and the courts, are overwhelming filled with non-violent criminals many of whom are serving decades to life. For example here in Hawaii you have people doing five years for littering.

As for your guilt by criminal association thing, I'm simply never going to support that until it's uniformly applied. Get back to me next time, and it will be a first, when an entire US municipal police department is charged under RICO, or your theory, and everyone down to the janitor is jailed after a single cop, maybe two to prove a pattern, is found to have committed a violent crime on, or off, duty. After all the same logic would apply to them, it's an organization whose members routinely engage in violent criminal behavior whose intent is to extort and terrorize the local community.

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This is the term of Bukele that will really see what I think of him.

It's clear he's way better than the previous situation which was basically rule by gangs and there wasn't much rule of law either.

All of that said, the big this will be how can create lasting institutions that let him pass power onto the next person in charge. That's going to be the real hard part, if he can't pull that off, my guess will be bad decisions will compound over time and things won't be great in the long run. Singapore is the exception, not the rule.

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You set up a dilemma between locking tons of people up for life (or 50 years) without trial vs continuing to live with pre-Bukele violence levels. But if you imprisoned the suspects for 15-20 years, long enough for them to experience “male menopause “ , that would probably do the trick. Still insanely draconian but it changes some of the utilitarian or quasi-utilitarian calculations you present.

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I've always assumed that the victims of murder are far and away as bad as those that do the murdering.

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I like this. Clear moral reasoning with appeals to clear moral principles. Utilitarianism is nerds trying to mathematize philosophy. The welfare of the people is the highest law.

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I hope to visit El Salvador this year or next. Never would have considered it before.

I see patients from El Salvador and they talk about how happy their families are to walk streets safely.

Are we "free" if we cannot walk down a street at 9 pm. I agree that the threat of totalitarianism is present. I would risk the Bukele tyranny over the gang's violent veto of normal life.

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I won't pretend to be an expert on El; Salvador's situation... but I feel certain that a lot of criticism from liberals and the NGO crowd are based on THEIR comfortable lives and elite statuses. It's easy to lecture poorer countries who are fighting for their lives.

Law and order is the basis for all civilization... civil rights are a wonderful luxury that can only exist AFTER law and order has been established... https://open.substack.com/pub/jmpolemic/p/bukeles-rebuke?r=1neg52&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&showWelcomeOnShare=true

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I'm not sure I agree with your conclusion, but you got there in a rigorous and surprising way, so I'm going to be thinking about it a while. Which is another way to say, great article!

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I won't pretend to be an expert on El; Salvador's situation... but I feel certain that a lot of criticism from liberals and the NGO crowd are based on THEIR comfortable lives and elite statuses. It's easy to lecture poorer countries who are fighting for their lives.

Law and order is the basis for all civilization... civil rights are a wonderful luxury that can only exist AFTER law and order has been established... https://open.substack.com/pub/jmpolemic/p/bukeles-rebuke?r=1neg52&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&showWelcomeOnShare=true

Expand full comment