Statehood and Self-Determination

Imagine, for a moment, that the State of Utah was not a state.

It’s nothing against the people of Utah, mind you. Utah still exists, it’s still a part of the United States, and if you’re born there you’re still an American citizen. It’s just not a state. We’ll call it a territory or a protectorate or something, and if you live there you don’t get to vote, since only states get to vote.

Bear in mind, of course, that the people in Utah are pretty isolated from the rest of the country. The bulk of them all live in or around the same big city, with hundreds of miles of desert wasteland between that and the nearest other populated parts of the United States. On top of that, that land wasn’t even part of the U.S. until well into the 19th century; before that it was always part of the Spanish-speaking New World. Plus the people that live there are a bit different than most other Americans, with their own distinct cultural identity (religion, customs, traditions and so on). Sure, they can leave Utah and go live in some other part of the U.S. – they’re actually pretty well known for doing that! – and they’re still Americans, so when they do they can vote in elections and do everything else that citizens get to do. But when they go back to Utah, they don’t get a say in our elections, because Utah isn’t a state.

I’m running out of room in this metaphor, so I’ll spoil the ending: the population of Utah is roughly the same as that of Puerto Rico. The ones in Utah1 have enjoyed statehood since 1896. The ones in Puerto Rico – despite being a part of the United States since 1899 – have not. This strikes me as obviously wrong.

It would be one thing if this territorial status didn’t matter much for Puerto Rico, but that’s not the case. The Jones Act, for example, makes life in Puerto Rico far more expensive than it needs to be. It also makes disaster relief a lot harder – which is pretty important for a place that gets hit by hurricanes with some regularity. As Scott Lincicome pointed out, this past September it took the Biden Administration over a week to issue a waiver after Hurricane Fiona to allow foreign ships to bring in fuel to Puerto Rico. Compare that with a one day turnaround for ports on the east coast during the Colonial Pipeline outage in 2021, and tell me that political representation doesn’t matter.

It’s worth noting that I am very much not a Puerto Rican. My impression is that the statehood movement in Puerto Rico is pretty popular – referenda in 2020, 2017, and 2012 have all shown a majority of voters in favor – but it’s important to note that my view is less “Puerto Rico should be a state” and more “Puerto Ricans should enjoy a right to self-determination.” A right to self-determination – to decide who governs you – strikes me as one of the most important rights there is. When Barbados decides they want to leave the Commonwealth, they should be able to do so. When the UK decides they want to leave the European Union, they should be able to do so (and if that makes Scotland opt to leave the UK afterwards, that ought to be their right as well). I’m not quite sure exactly where I draw the line, but I’m generally on board with Scott Alexander’s idea “in favor of the right of self-determination for any region big enough that it’s not inherently ridiculous for them to be their own country.” Puerto Rico clearly fits this criteria, and we should stop relegating it to second class status without giving it the ability to choose something else.