The mountain kingdom of Bhutan was widely praised for their measures of Gross National Happiness. But as Alan Beattie persuasively argued, Bhutan’s GNH is a bad idea whose time has gone. In practice, it has been “a deeply illiberal means of legitimising undemocratic rule.”
The GNH is assessed by asking survey respondents about a variety of indicators, from more conventional issues like health and education to more nebulous concepts like emotional fulfilment and perceived national ecological sustainability. It is noticeable that the haziest ones seem to do better: the highest-scoring indicator is “Values”, denoting that Bhutanese tend to concur that murder, stealing, lying, creating disharmony in relationships and sexual misconduct are a bad thing. Good for them, but, on the other hand, less than half of respondents are happy with their literacy, employment opportunities, government services and schooling.
Such outcomes are hardly surprising: the autocratic monarchy that ruled Bhutan until the first free elections in 2008 substantially failed to deliver better lives for most of its duration. Literacy is still only around 50 per cent, and only around half of children attend secondary school. Most Bhutanese are still subsistence or other small-scale farmers, unemployment is rife and suicide rates are alarmingly high. Corruption in government is believed to be widespread.
Moreover, GNH has proved no guarantee of individual human rights. Taking it at face value, you would never know that Bhutan has for decades been carrying out a brutal ethnic cleansing policy against the country’s Nepali-speaking minority. Once around a sixth of the population, a “Bhutanisation’ campaign that began in the 1980s resulted in tens of thousands of Nepalis being expelled from the country. Their houses were seized or burned down and people deported for speaking Nepali, refusing to eat beef (Nepalis are generally Hindu while ethnic Bhutanese are Buddhist) or declining to wear traditional dress. The displaced are still living in refugee camps in Nepal, or have been resettled in the US or elsewhere: none has been allowed to return.
GNH defines and imposes a unitary set of values that does not protect diversity or individual rights, or at least addresses them only in ways that can be defined and controlled by the government. It is a communitarian view of the world distinctly reminiscent of Hu Jintao’s ideal of a “harmonious society”, a concept frequently cited by the Chinese government when clamping down on free speech and dissent. It should give GNH’s foreign supporters a long pause for thought that as soon as Bhutanese voters had a choice after decades of dictatorship, they threw out its backers and brought in its critics.
Beattie is justly irritated that Bhutan’s measure distracted attention away from “more transparent and participative attempts to measure wellbeing.” Citizens are better served, he rightly said, “by the novel procedure of asking them, not defining it on their behalf.”
Social wellbeing cannot be measured by per capita income alone. It has multiple dimensions. But these are not fully commensurable, which is why no single index is ever a neutral measure. Embedded within any such index is a political judgment about how they should be weighed against each other, about how the common good should be defined.
Social welfare should be defined by citizens for themselves—not by Platonic Guardians. Individual voters are not always wise, but as John Dewey said, “there is one thing they are wiser about than anybody else can be, and that is where the shoe pinches, the troubles they suffer from.”