Nayib Bukele, the dictatorial president of El Salvador, provides a good illustration of a few themes I have discussed on this blog. Let me emphasize two. A six-minute YouTube video from The Economist and an article in the magazine (“Gangsters in El Salvador Are Terrified of Strongmen Nayib Bukele,” February 2, 2024) provide some background.

First, Bukele’s policies illustrate my dystopian post “A Simplistic Model of Public Policy.” I noted that if all young Americans between 18 and 24 were imprisoned, the murder rate would, at first sight, decrease by 39%. Like many South American countries, El Salvador had a very serious gang problem—a consequence of corrupt or incompetent governments, the demand for illegal drugs by Americans combined with the war on drugs here, and no doubt the practical and legal impossibility of ordinary Salvadorans to defend themselves against thugs. Bukele was elected in 2019 and reelected on February 4 despite the country’s constitution barring a second term. On flimsy evidence if any, his government has arrested and imprisoned 8% of the young male population. These suspected gang members have not been tried yet and, when trials come, they will be collective trials where dozens or perhaps hundreds will be “judged” together. Violence has dropped dramatically, and Bukele is “one of the most popular leaders in the world,” according to The Economist. The danger now is the police state, prefigured by mothers whose sons are snatched away by the police without any due process and imprisoned in dire conditions and without any family visit. As usual, the subversion of judicial independence has been necessary to obtain this result.

My second point relates to the answer of Gustavo Villatoro, Bukele’s minister of justice and internal security, to whom the Economist’s correspondent asked how he reacted to criticism from human rights organizations. He replied contemptuously (see the video):

We don’t work for human-rights organizations, we work for Salvadorean citizens.

If he meant “the Salvadorean citizens” (his command of English may not be perfect), he was obviously wrong: he certainly does not work for the innocent citizens who are imprisoned and their families and loved ones. What the minister is really saying, consciously or not, is that he works for some Salvadorean citizens against others, even if the former are (still) more numerous than the latter. “The people” is not one big person. A majoritarian Police State is still a Police State.

A (classical) liberal society is very different, even admitting that reality did not always live up to the ideal. At least, there is a guiding ideal, which is that the government does not “work for” a portion of the citizens, but instead supplies public security (and arguably other “public goods”) that everybody presumably wants, and treats equally all citizens—in fact, all residents and even foreign visitors. The details differ in different liberal theories. To simplify a bit too much, theories à la Hayek claim that the government protects the rule of law for everybody equally, while theories à la Buchanan make government the enforcer of general rules to which all citizens have presumably consented. (Anthony de Jasay, who defined himself as a liberal anarchist, argued that the state is always more or less a Bukele state: it cannot avoid harming some individuals and favoring others, which is what is meant by “governing.”)

In another EconLog post, I told the story of my late friend George Jonas, who visited communist Hungary as a tourist two decades after fleeing the country. One night, as he was walking with his woman companion along the pitch-black Grand Boulevard of Budapest (pitch-black was the color of the night under communism), she became apprehensive. George recalled in his memoirs (Beethoven’s Mask: Notes on My Life and Times [Key Porter Books, 2005]):

She reached for my hand and huddled closer to me. “Relax,” I said. “You’re in Hungary. Here you’ve nothing to worry about, until you see a policeman.”