We can learn from Bhutan, oh, yes!

Some economists need a primer

I have just finished a book The Rational Optimist by the international best seller Matt Ridley. He was interviewed briefly by Mark Colvin on Radio “Notional” in May. At the time, it came as a shock to see such optimism about the environment and human progress overcoming problems like climate change being promoted by the ABC.

Ridley’s book is really an ideal primer for the economically illiterate. Just last Wednesday in The Australian there was a curious piece by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, about how successful Bhutan had been in the happiness stakes. Of Bhutan, he sees a “Himalayan kingdom of unmatched natural beauty, cultural richness, and inspiring self-reflection”. He seems to have a collection of the rose tinted glasses that Ridley talks about in The Rational Optimist, where so many of the rich from West are “in love with mud” and can only see good things in their visits to third world squalor and poverty, complete with smiling peasants. Sachs goes so far as to suggest that “the kingdom’s thoughtful attitude towards development should inspire the West”. It sounds somewhat like the advice that some of our home grown intellectuals gave to us about Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich, a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies is less convinced about this sort of “Happy Natives” nonsense. He gives us a reality check:

Perhaps the Bhutanese are not so happy after all because they are poor. According to the country’s National Statistics Office, 23.2% of the total population are living below the poverty line of Nu 1,096 (approximately $25) a month.

Or maybe they are unhappy about their press freedom, which was ranked as one of the worst in the world in the 2009 ‘Freedom of the Press’ survey. That is, of course, only relevant insofar as they can read because Bhutanese literacy is below the South and West Asian average.

It is well worth reading.

To better understand Professor Sach’s bent, it is important to note that he is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

2 Responses to “We can learn from Bhutan, oh, yes!”

  1. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    Some people in the rich West believe that money has nothing to do with happiness, since they have plenty of money and don’t think they’re terribly happy. They might ponder how happy they’d be if they actually had to endure the deprivation of the average Bhutanese.
    (My own book, The Case for Rational Optimism (Transaction, Rutgers University, 2009), does make many points and arguments similar to Ridley’s, but is far broader in scope, covering not only such topics as the economy, war and peace, technology, democracy, etc., but also the evolutionary background and the philosophical and psychological issues involved with optimism versus pessimism. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm)

  2. Donald Says:

    Less than 20 years ago, about one sixth of the entire population didn’t find Bhutan a very happy place to inhabit. Now, having escaped cultural persection, they are in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Hardly happy campers.

    Perhaps that is the kingdom’s “thoughtful attitude towards development”.

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