A Conservative Case against Statehood for Puerto Rico
Followers of the Popular Democratic Party wave national flags at a rally in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2012. (Ana Martinez/Reuters)
It’s poor and primarily Spanish-speaking, and it’s not even clear that most of its citizens want their island to become the 51st state.
Earlier this week at for National Review, Kyle Sammin made “a conservative case for Puerto Rican statehood.” Some people might think that it’s unusual to see a conservative make that argument, but actually, it isn’t. As Sammin notes in his column, for decades the Republican-party platform has favored statehood for Puerto Rico. So have George W. Bush, along with his father and other, mostly moderate Republicans.
It’s a bit like the illegal-immigration argument. Democrats favor illegal immigration and Puerto Rican statehood for the same easy-to-understand reason: It’s likely to bring millions of new voters into the Democratic party. On the other hand, Republicans who push these ideas always seem to be compelled to go deep into the weeds to explain their position. For example, the central case in Sammin’s article, which I’ve read several times, seems to be that adding Puerto Rico as a state would remind American voters of the importance of federalism. You have to think that there is a better, less radical, and, perhaps most important, less costly way to achieve that aim.
Setting aside how obviously bad it would be for the Republican party to add a new center-Left state that would mostly vote for Democrats in the House, Senate, and White House while occasionally sending a Susan Collins–style Republican to D.C., I think it’s worth asking a question that very seldom seems to be asked in Washington anymore: How would this benefit the American people?
Keep in mind that Puerto Rico is extremely poor. As of 2017, the per capita income there is only slightly than half that of Mississippi, which is the worst-performing state in the U.S. by that measure. Moreover, 50 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty. It’s also worth noting that the word “bankruptcy” never appears in Sammin’s column. Yet the territory has been incapable of paying its debt since 2017. Put simply, Puerto Rico is an economic sinkhole. The General Accounting Office has estimated that the added tax burden coming along with statehood would cause enormous job losses and damage the economy of Puerto Rico even further. What benefit would the American people get from adding to the union a bankrupt state with a tanking economy?
Puerto Rico has had difficulty getting back on its feet after Hurricane Maria. While I have no qualms about criticizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Trump administration, it’s hard to believe that the same government that led Puerto Rico into bankruptcy doesn’t bear a large share of the responsibility for the botched recovery. The media love to point the finger of blame at a Republican president in situations like these (see George W. Bush after Katrina), but it doesn’t matter how much aid a government agency provides to a nation if the local government can’t, whether owing to incompetence or for other reasons, help its own people.
There are two final challenges to the case for Puerto Rican statehood. First, while Puerto Rico officially speaks both English and Spanish, the primary language spoken there is Spanish. Although estimates vary, most seem to put the number of residents fluent in English at less than 20 percent. That fact alone should give most Americans pause about whether Puerto Rico should become a state—people who don’t share a language will have difficulty working together at a job or sharing a common culture. Second, there is a real question about whether Puerto Rico even wants to become the 51st state. It has held five votes on the question. Three times, the people of Puerto Rico said “no.” The fourth vote was indeterminate. The fifth time, 23 percent of Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly said “yes” — but the anti-statehood party refused to participate because of the way the referendum was worded, and the vote was therefore practically meaningless. In other words, it’s unclear whether a majority of Puerto Ricans have ever wanted the island to become the 51st state.
The question that Americans have before us is whether we want a bankrupt, mostly Spanish-speaking, left-of-center state with an incompetent government to join the union even when it’s unclear whether most people in that country wants to do join in the first place. It’s understandable, if not admirable, that Democrats might put their narrow party interests ahead of what’s good for the country in backing Puerto Rican statehood. What’s hard to understand is what the appeal of Puerto Rican statehood would be to any conservative.