This charming little video provides some history of the concept of Gross National Happiness and its application in Bhutan.
It is amazing how much passion has been aroused by Gross National Happiness outside Bhutan. In August last year Jeffrey Sachs, a distinguished development economist, suggested that western countries should follow Bhutan in adopting Gross National Happiness as a national objective. His concern is that trends toward ‘hyper-consumerism’ have accelerated in the United States in recent decades and that this is destabilizing social relations and leading to aggressiveness, loneliness, greed, and over-work to the point of exhaustion. It is not self-evident that Sachs’ claims are true – and he provides no evidence in support of them. More importantly, it is not clear how he thinks adopting Gross National Happiness as a national objective in western countries would lead to better outcomes. I fear that the remedy he has in mind for alleged hyper-consumerism is additional paternalistic interventions by governments to further remove from individuals the responsibility to control their own lives.
On the other side of the canvas, Julie Novak, a free market liberal whose views I normally respect, has described Bhutan’s adoption of the GNH objective as a failed experiment. Julie’s reasoning seems to be that the experiment must have failed because Bhutan has a relatively low per capita GDP level and its ratings on various social indicators are also relatively low. However, I doubt whether many people would claim that adopting GNH as an objective can immediately lift the average well-being of people in a low-income country like Bhutan to a level comparable to that attainable in the most affluent countries. That would be just as silly as claiming that an increase in economic freedom can convert a low-income country immediately into a high-income country.
It makes more sense to compare Bhutan’s performance on various economic and social indicators with that of other low-income countries. The comparison I made between Bhutan and India, here, suggests that Bhutan has performed reasonably well. For example, Bhutan’s average economic growth rate of around 8 per cent per annum over the decade to 2007 was substantially higher than that for India.
It seems to me that it is far too soon to come to a judgement about Bhutan’s GNH experiment, particularly since it is only in recent years that a serious attempt has been made to measure GNH and there is little evidence to suggest how this information will actually be used in policy development. I concluded my research on this topic for APEL by suggesting that it is not yet clear to what extent the judgments implicit in the methodology reflect the values of the people of Bhutan on such matters as the dimensions of well-being that are important and the weighting that should be given to each dimension. One of my concerns is that the weight that people living in urban centres may wish to give to resilience of cultural traditions may differ substantially from that of people living a traditional rural lifestyle. It would not make sense to claim, for example, that the happiness of any individuals can be enhanced by forcing them to adopt traditional lifestyles if they would prefer more cosmopolitan lifestyles (or vice versa).
Postscript: May 8, 2011
In discussing GNH I have avoided discussing the Nepalese refugee problem because I don't know much about it. It is clear, however, that the government of Bhutan has been slow to repatriate refugees who were long-term residents of Bhutan prior to being forced to leave.
It is also of concern that in implementing its GNH policy the government of Bhutan is now apparently jailing people for having more that a very small amount of tobacco products in their possession. This is discussed by Sonam Ongmo on her Dragon Tales blog.
The idea that you can make people happy by jailing them seems peculiar.