Sunday, June 05, 2011

American Territories

Can anyone explain to me why America is still in the business of possessing territories that do not have full voting rights? These would include (of places with permanent populations) Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Marinas Islands, Guam, and the District of Columbia. Politically speaking, of course, there are loads of reasons why these territories exist in a state of effective colonization -- they're too small, they're too likely to vote Democratic, they may desire independence (in Puerto Rico's case, there may be a virtual standoff between independence and statehood forces).

But it seems to me that there is no normative justification whatsoever for this state of affairs. Places should either be independent nations, or should have full voting rights in the country that maintains sovereignty over them -- it's that simple. Even size isn't really a barrier: D.C. is already bigger than Wyoming in terms of population. A unified "Pacifica" state of American Samoa, Northern Marinas Islands, and Guam would be the smallest U.S. state, but not by an unreasonable margin (it'd have roughly 322,000 people, against Wyoming's 563,000). Puerto Rico on its own would already have multiple Representatives in Congress (and would likely be combined with the U.S. Virgin Islands for statehood purposes).

And while I agree that these territories (absent D.C.) should be given an option of independence if they desire (akin to the Marshall Islands, for example), I also think their long-standing governance by the United States has given them a valid claim to statehood, if they want it, that we have an obligation to respect. In fact, I think democratic representation is so important that I don't think it should really be optional -- statehood or independence should be a mandatory choice.

It is frankly embarrassing that this country, which serves as a model for democracy the world over, has large swaths of people under its banner who don't have representation in Congress. It's wrong, and what's more, I can't think of any remotely plausible valid reason for allowing it other than bare inertia.


Nick said...

You seem to be operating under the assumption that a change in status to full assimilation is desirable for the people on the ground -- which is not always the case.

The truth is that there are many advantages to this status of ongoing ambiguity in status, not the least of which is that, as I understand it, Puerto Ricans do not pay income taxes. The truth is that on the ground there is great ambivalence about keeping the status quo, fully joining as part of the U.S., or independence -- and so an inexorable push in one direction or the other forces these conflicts to a head, perhaps unecessarily.

I agree with you that there are times when the question of autonomy needs to be definitively addressed one way or the other, and that failure to do so can be a clear moral failing. But it's not clear to me that such is the case with American territories (D.C. aside, but that's largely now resulted in a Constitutional question, not an inertia question.) So while, as a matter of first principles, it's less than ideal that we've gotten where we are, it's not necessarily bad to allow these territories to gain some benefits from being part of the U.S. while not fully integrating them into the U.S. -- as long as they're okay with that and the U.S. is willing to support if financially.

The question is, why do we feel a need to impose from above our sense of what these people would want?

Christopher Meyer said...

With regard to Puerto Rico, they've repeatedly voted in favor of the Commonwealth status quo. The standoff isn't between independence and statehood; it's between statehood and status quo. The most recent plebiscite (1998) was 50.3% status quo, 46.5% statehood, and just 2.5% for independence:

One issue the statehood movement has is that lots of statehood supporters just keep moving to the mainland. There are about half a million more Puerto Ricans on the mainland than on the island, and statehood is much more popular among the mainlanders.

In my opinion the next plebiscite ought to just give them the choice between statehood or independence, in which case statehood would win by a landslide.

David Schraub said...

Nick -- we don't make votes alienable or transferrable, precisely because we don't think people should generally be permitted to barter away their democratic rights. That's true even if they might value other things (like tax relief) more. And this makes sense to me on at least two levels: (1) Democratic legitimacy is predicated on universal suffrage -- when groups who are governed don't have the ability to participate, the entire democratic project is thrown into doubt; (2) we worry that marginalized classes will be particularly vulnerable to deals which barter away their democratic rights, which skews outcomes in socially suboptimal was.

Hence, it actually doesn't really matter to me whether a given group prefers being in a state of political peonage, its service bought for a lowered tax wage. Democracy requires open democratic participation, and there are excellent reasons (and reasons we generally adhere to in other cases) why we don't open it up for bargain.

(I should say I also favor election day as a federal holiday, and mandatory voting in national elections).

Rebecca said...

You do know, of course, that your argument could apply equally to the current situation of Palestinians in the West Bank - they should either immediately be given full Israeli citizenship or immediate independence.

David Schraub said...

Indeed. I think there is space for a negotiated settlement, but I think the ultimate accepted end goal has to be either (a) independence or (b) citizenship.

PG said...

While there's indisputable textual support in the Constitution for D.C.'s not having home rule (the powers of Congress include "To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District..."), I'm not sure it's as clear that DC shouldn't be treated as a state for the purpose of having Congressional representation.