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What’s More Important: People or Institutions?

Posted May 09, 2024

Sean Ring

By Sean Ring

What’s More Important: People or Institutions?

Of the people. By the people. For the people.

The first job of any government is to protect the people. If a government can’t defend its people, it has no purpose and must be replaced.

As a Hoppean Libertarian, I am positioned further right on the political spectrum than most libertarians. This perspective shapes my critique of an article I recently encountered in Law and Liberty.

In a piece titled “Unanchored in El Salvador,” G. Patrick Lynch compares El Salvador’s President, Nayib Bukele, to chemotherapy for El Salvador’s social cancer. It’s little more than a hit piece, attacking both Bukele and his right-wing “fanboys.” 

Having lived in dangerous environments, I find it hard to take seriously those who critique leaders like Bukele from the safety of their homes. And before Bukele’s presidency, El Salvador was far more dangerous than New York, London, or the Philippines.

Before I get into Lynch’s article, let me give you a bit of background.

New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong

I grew up outside New York City and remember the 70s and 80s. It was a shithole. Not until Rudy Giuliani came in with his “broken windows policy” did The City clean itself up. Cops were all over the place, and crime fell off a cliff. It was the world's greatest big city in the late 1990s.

When I moved to Singapore in 2009, I was already aware of the complete lack of crime there. Singapore had, and still has, a reputation for being “sterile,” but that usually comes from Westerners who are used to filthy, crime-ridden cities. The comments were completely different when I spoke to a South African friend who lived in Singapore. “I love it here. I can let my kids stay out until 3 am and sleep soundly.”

Hong Kong elicits much the same reaction, except for sterility. Hong Kong is a dirty city, but there are no crimes. Again, children are entirely safe there.

What did all these cities have in common?

A police force that enforced the law, kept the peace, and tolerated zero indiscretions. They still do this in Singapore and Hong Kong. How’s the Big Apple doing? Or Chicago? Or San Francisco?

Lynch’s Critique of Bukele

Let Lynch himself lay out the case before Bukele:

El Salvador has had a very bad case of social cancer for a while now—namely, it has had a chronic violence and crime problem. Long ranked as the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere, daily life in El Salvador was dominated by crime gangs. Now the reflexive tendency in Latin America, not without reason, is to assume this involves drugs. And without question, El Salvador has narco-trafficking.

Okay, it was terrible.

Lynch continues:

Gangs in El Salvador surprisingly have their roots in the US. Salvadoran immigrants got involved in illegal activities in the US and started to establish criminal enterprises back home. While the US has a fairly robust legal system and law enforcement mechanism, El Salvador and most of Central America do not. Policing is poor, civil society is weak, and rule of law is virtually non-existent. The gangs thrived, like an invasive species.

Bukele began his term by trying to disrupt gang finances and policing well-known areas where the gangs extorted money from locals throughout the country. He also rehashed many of the public works proposals he tried as mayor. None of that solved the problem, so Bukele decided to change to a much more radical and aggressive form of medicine.

In El Salvador, the police and rule of law didn’t exist. Bukele locked down prisons - a huge source of revenue - for the criminals. So, Bukele tried a few things before his big crackdown.

Lynch writes on:

Eventually the gangs had an outburst of violence and Bukele seized the opportunity to round up tens of thousands of suspected gang members in a nationwide sweep led by his military and police. He packed these individuals into a newly built prison that was unlike any other in the region. Stacked on top of one another and essentially deprived of most of their civil liberties, the prisoners have been locked away for several years. However the violence and crime rates in the country, unsurprisingly, have cratered. El Salvador is now one of the safest countries in the hemisphere and Bukele is a rock star in his country. 

Well, what do you expect? An elected official hired to do a job does it. Yes, it makes him a rock star in today's clown world. Joke Biden won’t even close the US border.

Here’s where Lynch resorts to name-calling:

The great American philosopher Alfred E Neuman was famous for his expression that was summarized by the phrase “What, me worry?” He graced the front page of Mad Magazine posed in various crisis situations. Many Salvadorans, and those of the American right who are currently “fanboys” of Bukele, are undoubtedly thinking the same thing now. Faced with a failed state and social crisis, a heroic political leader seems to have emerged to save his nation despite criticism from international organizations and human rights groups—the very groups that the American right and many Latin Americans ridicule. Bukele seems a perfect solution to a serious challenge facing the region.

It’s easy to see why so many on the right have become enamored with Bukele. They too lack basic respect for rules and institutions. They, like him, are largely unanchored by any coherent set of ideas or philosophy. Raw power and faith in “great individuals” seem to be their only consistent views. The rise of contempt for elites and policy experts after the financial crisis and Covid lockdowns have dovetailed with a fear of immigration, crime, and disorder. Bukele looks like a prototype for them, and they are swooning.

The Left cares about intentions. The Right cares about results. It’s not like Bukele rounded up these criminals and summarily executed them. He put them in prison, where they belong.

And I take massive issue with Lynch’s accusation that the Right doesn’t care about institutions. We didn’t take the Long March through them. The Left did and destroyed them. If the rule of law were enforced, Bukele wouldn’t have been needed. And when institutions no longer serve the people they were built for, they deserve to be torn down and replaced with something that works.

Wrap Up

As my good friend and former Mises Institute Jeff Deist posted, “It’s up to the Salvadorans to decide.” Ultimately, that’s true.

In the meantime, I’m rooting for Bukele. He cleaned the country up in one fell swoop. He reminds me of a young Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Singapore’s success speaks for itself.

Hopefully, El Salvador’s success will, too.

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