Puerto Rico recently voted in favor of becoming a U.S. state for the fifth time. As with the past four times, this proposition is not legally binding and probably won’t receive a serious consideration. Lawmakers in Washington D.C. aren’t particularly incentivized to reduce their own power by adding additional Congressmen and Senators. Furthermore, the Republicans who control Congress at the moment are even less interested in adding another solidly blue state’s representatives. Nonetheless, that reality shouldn’t be considered a loss. There is one reason why Puerto Rico should want to become an independent country instead of a U.S. state: The Merchant Marine Act of 1920.
Informally known as the Jones Act, the legislation mandates that all trade between two U.S. ports must be conducted by a U.S. built, U.S. owned, and U.S. flagged ship crewed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. It is one of many lesser known pieces of protectionist legislation that has created a substantial cottage industry. The Jones Act protects the U.S. shipbuilding industry as well as the Merchant Marines. Representing tens of thousands of high paying American jobs, those unions have easily stymied any and all efforts to repeal the legislation.
As Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory it falls under the discretion of the Jones Act. Therefore, all trade between the U.S. and Puerto Rico must abide by those expensive restrictions. Almost everything has to first go through a U.S. port on the mainland and then be shipped to Puerto Rico separately. As a result, consumer goods are substantially more expensive than they would be otherwise. Cars cost about 40% more for Puerto Ricans than for U.S. citizens in the lower forty eight states. If Puerto Rico became a U.S. state, the Jones Act would still apply, and prices would remain high.
That wouldn’t be the case if Puerto Rico decided to pursue independence. As an independent country, Puerto Rico would no longer be subject to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. They would be free to trade directly with the U.S. and avoid the high costs imposed by U.S. shipping. While prices would always be higher because Puerto Rico is an island nation, many goods would become much more affordable. The public would benefit greatly from such savings. While getting out from under the Jones Act would do nothing for Puerto Rico’s debt, it could help provide a need boost to the stagnate economy.
Of course, the current government of Puerto Rico doesn’t support independence either, and for a very good reason. The island is currently more than $70 billion in debt and the Governor wants to become a U.S. state in order to offload that debt onto the U.S. taxpayer. As a state, Puerto Rico could apply for far more federal funds and bankruptcy protections than they are currently eligible to receive. Politicians see statehood as an easy way out of the financial problems they caused with decades of big government spending. While it may be a solution for the government, average Puerto Ricans wouldn’t benefit from U.S. statehood nearly as much. The Jones Act would still apply, and the prices they pay would remain high.
Independence is the best option for Puerto Ricans, and in truth it’s the only option. Puerto Rico has attempted to become a U.S. state for decades and never received any support from Washington. Puerto Ricans should accept that this is never going to happen given the political disincentives and shift their attention towards independence. Republicans would be much more willing to sign off on such a measure. It would permanently eliminate the possibility of upsetting the electoral college by adding another blue state. As an independent country, Puerto Rican citizens and their economy as a whole would benefit greatly from the reduction in prices of consumer goods. Independence is a far better option for Puerto Ricans despite what their politicians may say.