One argument against statehood that we sometimes see is that Puerto Rico’s government is corrupt. There are two questions we should examine about this argument:
- First, is Puerto Rico’s government particularly corrupt?
- Second, is this actually an argument against statehood?
Is Puerto Rico’s government corrupt?
Adrian Florida of NPR said, “It’s worth noting that studies have found that Puerto Rico is not more prone to corruption than other places in the United States.” That is true.
Trading Economics reports that Puerto Rico is ranked at #31 out of 180 countries and territories, where #1 is the least corrupt and #180 is the most corrupt. Puerto Rico is ranked #15 among the states of the U.S. for corruption, according to the New York Times.
Corruption in politics is never a good thing, but Puerto Rico is not especially corrupt.
Is corruption an argument against statehood?
More importantly, corruption in a territorial government is not a reason not to become a state. In the history of many states, it has been an argument for statehood.
Many territories in the past worked for statehood to gain law and order. Let’s look at a few examples:
- In Arkansas, “The Family” controlled government in the territory. Duels and murders were part of the territory’s political life, including a stabbing that took place on the floor of the legislature while it was in session (this took place just after statehood — the last hurrah of the territorial government).
- Both New Mexico and Arizona had to overcome their reputations as lawless places with gunslingers and gangsters terrorizing the populace. An unusual recent study found that their accounting improved when they became states, too — statehood brought about better accounting and increased public accountability, in that “improved accounting brings light to murky transactions and the back-door deal making of government officials.”
- Kansas’s territorial government in the 1850s was known as the “Bogus Legislature” because more votes were cast in the election than there were residents living in the territory.
- According to an essay on Colorado history at Constituting America, “By the early 1870s the territorial governors appointed from Washington, D.C., had become so corrupt at to be unbearable to the people of Colorado. So they began to seek statehood.”
- In what became the state of Louisiana, according to papers from the time, “The litigant who was able to pay the largest bribes to the commandant generally succeeded.”
- The Congressional Record for 1952 reports that “Corruption in the present Alaska administration has been widespread for many years” and goes on to give details of “the notorious Palmer land deal” in which the territorial government misrepresented the costs of land for an airport to gain funds from the federal government, among other examples. Alaska was a territory at the time.
This list could be much longer. Accountability and support from the federal government have historically led to greater safety, less corruption, and better government in states than in the territories they had previously been.
If Puerto Rico were more likely to have government corruption than states, statehood would be a solution to that problem.