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The Invisible Graveyard of Crime
A cost-benefit approach to the crackdown in El Salvador
Critics of the FDA talk about the “invisible graveyard,” or the untold numbers who die due to the overregulation of medicine. The federal government tries to protect people from taking dangerous or unproven treatments, but if the system errs too much on the side of caution, people will die because they can’t get treatments that might otherwise save their lives. Ideally, you want a system that considers the tradeoffs between preventing harms through regulation and the need to let innovation go forward.
I’ve recently realized that a similar metaphor can apply to crime. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has undertaken a gang crackdown that has been roundly denounced by the American press, even as articles grudgingly acknowledge its successes. Reuters informs us that dozens have died in the process. Here’s what has happened to the homicide rate
Bukele took office in 2019. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, the number of homicides dropped from 1,147 to 496. Of course, getting the murder rate down doesn’t simply save lives. Violent areas see less influxes of capital and lower levels of economic activity. According to one estimate, crime costs the US 12% of GDP annually.
I haven’t looked into this literature, but as someone who grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, it’s clear to me that crime has massive costs. Much of the city is simply closed to outsiders. There was a federal court case some years back where a family successfully sued the city police for releasing their white daughter into a black area, on the grounds that white people are so rare in parts of Chicago that they naturally stand out as targets. She ended up raped and brain damaged after jumping or being thrown out of a 7th floor window in a housing project.
In allowing the case to go forward, Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote that the cops “might as well have released her into the lions’ den at the Brookfield Zoo.” Easterbrook has been a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, which I attended, so has experience with the extent to which the area surrounding campus is off-limits to students and faculty. The University of Chicago goes north-to-south from E 55th Street, five blocks down to E 60th Street, where the law school is located. If you go one block down to 61st Street, you’re already approaching no man’s land. At least when I was there a decade ago, there was practically no buffer between the law school and the local community. The campus itself was kept relatively safe at night by private security guards standing around every few blocks or so, but nobody ever traveled south of campus for any reason. Sometimes violence still finds the community, as when a Chinese graduate student was killed in a robbery just north of campus in 2021.
Here you have one of the best universities in the world, in the third largest city in the US, about a mile from Lake Michigan, and much of the land surrounding it is basically uninhabitable for the kinds of people who could bring commerce and economic growth. The University of Chicago is not unique. Much of the most potentially valuable real estate in the US is off-limits to anyone but locals without any other options. I don’t know if that adds up to 12% of GDP, but crime is a massive tax on the American way of life.
The year before Bukele came into office, El Salvador had a murder rate of 51 per 100,000, making the entire country about as violent as modern Detroit, which is such a basketcase that you can take a virtual tour of the ruins of the city or see them in a coffee table book. El Salvador was growing at about 2% a year before 2019, which is terrible for a developing country, and a quarter of its GDP comes from remittances from the US, which is one of the highest numbers in the world. But, since the gang crackdown, The Washington Post reports that,
the real sea change is on the ground, where citizens report that extortion has all but disappeared. Salvadorans have gained a palpable sense of security in their everyday lives at the expense of due process, democracy and transparency. Most seem to be fine with the trade-off. Bukele himself is immensely popular, as is the state of emergency he has declared. Protests against him have fizzled.
Ideally, you’d like to be able to fight crime while also protecting human rights and not creating opportunities for the arbitrary abuse of government power. In the real world, this is usually asking too much of governments in developing countries. Previous Salvadoran governments have tried more limited crackdowns before with limited success. Just look at how much trouble the US has had keeping inner-city dysfunction under control since the Warren Court started creating new rights for criminals in the 1960s. Now imagine trying to accomplish the same with a government that is orders of magnitude poorer and starting out with the entire country being as violent as Detroit.
I’ve noted how strange it was that, before Bukele’s crackdown, guys with gang tattoos all over their bodies were walking around freely.
In a first world country where crime is manageable, maybe you can tolerate such blatant mockery of the larger society. Are you really going to arrest a guy for a tattoo? What about freedom of expression? If you have evidence that he’s committed a crime, carefully gather the evidence and then go to a judge and get a warrant. Vox complains that there aren’t enough public defenders in El Salvador to advocate on behalf of all the accused criminals. Should a country therefore let gangs roam free until it sets up a few more law schools and finds enough money in the budget to hire the new graduates? How many young people with energy and ambition are going to try to become lawyers in a crime-infested El Salvador rather than simply do whatever it takes to get to the United States? Does being a public defender for MS-13 seem like a more fulfilling and less stressful life? More attorneys also means you need a more professional police force since lawyers will catch more mistakes the cops made, so add that to the list of things you need to do before you’re allowed to have a functional society. The point here is that much of what sounds like reasonable advice in a first world nation is simply unrealistic in a country in the position of El Salvador.
In September, the House of Representatives held hearings over human rights violations in El Salvador, with one of the complaints being that the government was locking people up without conducting thorough investigations into each case. If a developing country sees violence skyrocket to the point where citizens can’t live normal lives, we generally consider that an internal political issue, invisible to the rest of the world. If the same nation becomes too zealous in fighting crime, however, human rights goes to the top of the agenda as an international concern that brings with it diplomatic and economic pressure.
Is the Bukele crackdown justified in cost-benefit terms? One can’t answer this question from first principles in the way that human rights activists and many in the media would like. Instead, we can do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. El Salvador now locks up about 2 percent of its adult population. Let’s assume that one quarter of them are innocent of any crime, or aren’t the type of people who will be committing crimes in the near future if they’re allowed to go free. This strikes me as a radical overestimate, as I suspect few states targeting criminals are so incompetent as to incarcerate one innocent person for three guilty ones, especially if you count the category of “surely soon to be guilty of something” as worthy of being locked up, which I’m sure many of the tattooed young gentlemen in the video above fall into.
This would mean that in El Salvador, under the current crackdown, you would have something like a 1 in 200 chance of being locked up as an innocent person. Recall from above that when Bukele took power, El Salvador had a murder rate equivalent to that of Detroit, while now it’s in the ballpark of the US average. We can therefore put the question like this: would you take a 1 in 200 chance of being innocently locked up in order to go from living in a random neighborhood in Detroit to living in an American city with a crime rate close to the national average?
I would take this tradeoff without thinking twice. Consider that living in Detroit would not only mean a higher chance of getting killed, but also that you probably can’t start a business in your local community, and you have to worry about your kids playing outside. And part of the reason that modern Detroit is tolerable at all and functions to the extent it does is because it’s surrounded by the rest of the United States, which means that residents can, say, occasionally go shopping and take care of some of the other necessities of life in less violent areas, plus they get a constant influx of tax dollars from more productive parts of the country, and the advantage of living under more competent governments at the state and federal levels. If your entire country is one big Detroit, then you don’t even have that, which indicates that in the developing world cracking down on crime is an even bigger necessity than it is in the most violent US cities.
Other considerations should go into the cost-benefit analysis. To start, it’s possible that Bukele’s crackdown shouldn’t get 100% of the credit for going from Detroit to close to the American average. But even going from Detroit to, say, Chicago, is a massive improvement in living standards, as anyone who has been to both cities can tell you. It’s hard for me to imagine reasonable assumptions that would make what Bukele is doing wrong.
And I think that I’ve been very generous to critics of the policy by assuming that one quarter of those incarcerated are innocent and likely to remain that way. In the videos that have been released, it’s difficult to find individuals without tattoos all over their bodies, which indicates that the government is really picking a lot of low-hanging fruit here, unless they’re hiding all the well-behaved dog walkers they swooped up in other facilities. Some utilitarians might argue that we should also factor in the suffering of guilty people locked up in jail, but I consider this immoral, and think the argument fails on its own terms, since a criminal allowed to roam free usually has extremely negative effects on the rest of his community. I’ve personally known a few people who have gone to jail, and in each case society would have been much better off putting them away even if they had never committed the crimes that finally put them behind bars. Heather Mac Donald, in arguing against the idea that the US locks up large numbers of people who shouldn’t be incarcerated, calls prison a kind of “lifetime achievement award” given out to those who’ve spent years terrorizing or at the very least parasitizing their wider communities. Someone who shoplifts daily from local businesses, for example, is highly unlikely to ever go to jail for his crimes, but can make it less viable for merchants to open much needed stores in certain areas.
Another way I’m being generous to critics of Bukele is by attributing the entire Salvadoran prison population to the recent crackdown. Clearly, the crackdown only created some increase over a baseline level. Keeping this in mind makes the arguments here even stronger.
Finally, the beauty of fighting crime is that once you get the problem under control, you see a virtuous cycle, and heavy-handed tactics become less necessary. Goofy liberals will occasionally complain that black neighborhoods are policed more heavily than white neighborhoods and claim that this creates more difficult conditions for the people living in poorer areas, when the causation of course goes the other way. Worried about innocent people being arrested and going to jail? Or confrontations between residents and law enforcement that lead to police shooting unarmed citizens? The best way to make these things less likely is to get the crime rate to go down, however you can make it happen.
None of this is to say that more punitive criminal justice policies are always better. For example, China’s war on its Uighur population, which has swept up masses of innocent people in response to a few relatively minor terrorist attacks that didn’t threaten the viability of the state or the ability of normal life to function, seems like it has been a massive overreaction. But a reasonable look at the stakes involved would indicate that in the most violent countries in Latin America and the most dangerous neighborhoods in the US, we worry way too much about the rights of criminals, and not nearly enough about the damage they cause to the wider society.
UPDATE: See also the followup to this piece here.
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