Friday, January 20, 2006

Gross National Happiness (paca)

I got an announcement for this talk. Apparently, it was yesterday and I already missed it. Anyway:

"Gross National Happiness"
A presentation by
His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Y. Thinley
Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs of The Kingdom of Bhutan

Lyonpo Jigmi Yoser Thinley, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Bhutan, is currently serving as the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs.

What is the true measure of a country's prosperity? For Bhutan, an ancient kingdom secluded high in the Himalayas tucked between China and India, Gross National Happiness has been the guiding philosophy of the country's development process. It is rooted in the Buddhist notion that the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness. The King of Bhutan has declared that
"Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product," and it is now an official policy passed by parliament.

According to Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley: "While conventional development models stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, the concept of GNH is that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other."  The four pillars of GNH are sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and good governance. Recently, SAARC ministers adopted the concept of GNH among the strategies for the eradication of poverty in South Asia.

In some ways, this almost seems silly, but in other ways it is very intriguing. I agree completely with the idea that the measure of a successful society is not simply GDP. There is something more. After all, Maoist China, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia did some impressive things with GDP, but it should not be by that measure alone that we judge them. At the same time, can happiness be measured and should the government be concerned with it, or should government stay the hell away from it?

I'm reminded of two conversations I have had. One was with a co-worker a few years back. Somehow the topic of Appalachian culture came up. No idea why. But we got in a dispute where I essentially asserted that it would be a shame if the distinctive Applachian culture totally disappeared. He talked about some of the horrible poverty that he had seen in Eastern Ohio and how it wasn't a shame to try to get rid of starvation, no education, etc.

Another conversation was with the llama, also several years back. He was arguing that the US was in fact what the politicians always say "The Greatest Nation on Earth." I was not so sure. Upon his challenge, I was not able to come up with some place else that was clearly better. The best proposal I had was the Scandavian countries, so now you can just mark me down as a rabid Socialist if you like. Today, I would agree there is no great case for, say Sweden, as the Greatest Nation on Earth. But the reason I was thinking of it as a possibility is because I was not convinced that the US' power truly made it the greatest. If the US is the greatest nation, it is something else that gives us that title. Is it political freedom? Maybe, but many nations today have comparable rights of free speech, robust democracies, etc. Is it the big achievements? Maybe, but which ones. Perhaps the Moon Landing. Plausible. But at the same time, Stalin launched Sputnik and I'm not going to live in his Greatest Country. The trans-continental railroad? But China, Russia, and Canada have similar things. Maybe it is all of it together. We do Moon Landings and have freedom of speech (unless you are comforting the enemy of course). In the end, maybe it is a silly debate like trying to decide who the best person ever was or the best song.

But there does remain a very important issue. What makes a country truly great? Should government be concerned at all with Happiness and trying to measure it? And, llama, if you are around, as the international development guru, does GNH as adopted by SAARC work?


sr said...

I heard a piece on this on NPR a year or so ago and find it very interesting. I also would be interested in seeing how GNH is measured.

and, by the way, Paca, thank you for your posts several days ago regarding your musing on government. For those of us actually trying to do good work in state government during tragic times like these, we can feel overwhelmed by the enorminity of the need and seeming inadequacy of the response.

sr said...

you know we state employees can't spell