President Trump’s press conference in Puerto Rico made clear that whatever the island’s political designation may be, Puerto Ricans are Americans and he will act accordingly. The Commonwealth’s recovery—and not just from this hurricane—is part of the goal of making America great again. But the difficulties involved extend far beyond differences in political status or institutions. Clearly, Puerto Rico’s lack of a strong civic culture hinders reconstruction and the storm that caused this mess is of a kind much worse than hurricanes.
For the most part, the battered island has been portrayed in the media as utterly helpless, dependent on a trickle of U.S. aid and battling a hostile president, who because he tweeted that some Puerto Rican politicians “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort” is now taken to mean that there is something inherently and irredeemably wrong about the Puerto Rican people. The slander is as unjust as it was predictable. But focus on that distraction will only hinder efforts to help solve Puerto Rico’s current and ongoing real problems.
The President’s bluntness about the absence of local civic associations and vigorous local government once again exposes a sad—if incomplete—truth about Puerto Rico. It is absolutely fair to say that it lacks the emphasis on individual freedom Tocqueville appreciated in Americans, as working to benefit neighbors and cooperate in local ventures for the common good. This culture of civic engagement spurred by confident and free citizens helps explain the Texas and Florida reactions to less severe, but still deadly and destructive, storms.
But even beyond the much-commented on financial and other acute crises that permeate the culture of civic friendship in Puerto Rico, there is still more under the surface that helps to explain the deep roots of the problems that will make Puerto Rican disaster recovery much more difficult than it otherwise might have been.
The Commonwealth labors under a severe debility—not merely a “culture of poverty” abetted by Spanish imperialism—but rather its subjugation to the cutting edge of Progressive theory and practice. Puerto Rico could have been a model for how freedom might be a blessing for nations that dared for a higher dignity than colony status. Instead, as Puerto Rico was liberated from Spain, American Progressives made it a model for government planning and dependence. If President Trump is serious about deconstructing the administrative state, then those same principles that apply to the United States proper should apply even more to Puerto Rico. All Americans deserve freedom.
As crucial as Franklin Roosevelt is for understanding the way the United States is governed today, it is even more the case that understanding Rexford Tugwell (1891-1979) is crucial for understanding Puerto Rico. Tugwell was FDR’s appointee from 1941-1946 as Puerto Rico’s Governor and New Deal Brain Truster. To encapsulate the economist Tugwell’s ambitions, it is revealing that novelist Philip K. Dick (of Blade Runner fame) made Tugwell his “hero” in an earlier novel, The Man in the High Castle, about the U.S. under Nazi and Japanese rule.
The non-fictional Tugwell, however, poured his ambitions into turning Puerto Rico into a laboratory for the New Deal. He gushed that the island “was a planning agency of the kind that I had said to myself I would someday try to see set up somewhere. This was my opportunity.” According to historian Michael Lapp, “it used to be said there that when one asked Puerto Ricans to describe the typical family on the island, they would answer: ‘the father, the mother, the children, the grandparents and the resident social scientist.’” Tugwell’s conceit was that social scientists would make Puerto Rico a “showcase for democracy” and a model for post-colonial development.
Tugwell enlisted the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) to establish a planning board that would issue top-down reforms of the government, the university, and the economy, including state-owned industries and infrastructure. His successor governors continued this Progressive experimentation. The current governor, a graduate of MIT, with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan, is from the PDP.
As Lapp summarizes, Catholic “Puerto Rico in the 1950s became the chief testing ground for the birth control pill. That decade also witnessed the rapid increase in the number of sterilizations performed, to the point where, according to one study, more women had what became known as ‘la operacion’ than in any other country in the world.” Everything, including the existence of human beings, would result from planning.
Such a territory, Tugwell and later his planners averred, could provide an alternative to Communist ambitions for the Third World. The blend of races would, they hoped, present a multicultural face to the world.
But the Puerto Rico we see today is not this hoped for utopia. Instead, it is the administrative state gone amok. Tugwell’s progressive influence remains on the island, and the results should stand as a testament to the flaws of progressivism. When we see Puerto Ricans waiting for the government to act, we are seeing the atrophy of civic culture brought about by many decades of big-government Progressive ideology.
This attitude is very much the product of unhinged ideological schemes. We should keep in mind Tocqueville’s observation that Americans help out people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances—as their fellow Americans in Puerto Rico are today—but that they cease their generosity after a while, to show that they respect the independence of the unfortunates; their inherent ability to use and enjoy their freedom.
That is what America owes all Americans. As the World Series approaches, we recall baseball heroes from Puerto Rico such as the late Roberto Clemente and Carlos Beltran, who are also our fellow Americans. Puerto Rico is part of the American team. In rebuilding the island, the Trump administration needs to roll back its Progressive legacy and allow the island to be the truly American model Governor Tugwell, because of his Progressive blinders, failed so miserably to create.