Bhutan sounds like a lovely place to live. It exemplifies civic virtue and culture of trust. And it’s probably the most powerful example of social democracy in the world, including free healthcare, despite limited wealth. They are even environmentalist-minded, legally requiring most of the country remain forested, banning of the importation and use of farm chemicals, and being the only carbon-neutral country in the world. But it also might be the only country ever to implement a political system akin to Jeffersonian republicanism, specifically based on the yeoman farmer.
All of this is accomplished through public policy. This is seen with Bhutan’s official practice of guaranteeing there are no homeless. The solution is simple without the need to provide public housing or subsidized housing. Instead, for anyone in need, the government gives a plot of land large enough for them to build a house and have a garden. At the very least, the individual would be able to have basic shelter and do subsistence farming, maybe even grow enough to be sold at a local market.
This is basically the idea that Thomas Jefferson had, but it was never fully implemented. Jefferson took it a step further in one proposal. He suggested that only landowners should vote, but he also believed everyone should have land. The way to accomplish this was to give every citizen some land when they reached adulthood. This would only work with an economy built on small farmers, as Bhutan has done.
Bhutan doesn’t end with that. There are many awesome things they do as part of a common vision of public good. The most famous principle is their measuring the success of their society by the standard of happiness and, indeed, the society is accordingly quite successful. This is the only country with a Gross National Happiness Commission and an official Minister of Happiness. It is ranked as the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest country in the world — not bad for a country that few Westerners have heard of.
This emphasis on happiness should also remind us of Jefferson’s way of thinking. Whereas John Locke wrote of “life, liberty and estate,” Jefferson preferred “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He might have been inspired by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who identified natural rights with happiness. In Jefferson’s worldview, happiness is essential to the consent of the governed in a free society. Bhutan takes this to a whole other level, not merely guaranteeing the private pursuit of happiness but making gross national happiness a public policy.
As such, Bhutan sheds light upon what freedom means, beyond the American obsession of hyper-individualism. The word ‘freedom’ has the same Germanic etymology as ‘friend’. To be free means to be among friends, to be a member of a free people, to belong and be welcomed, to call a place home. We only have rights to the degree that those around us protect our rights and support our shared freedom. In Bhutan, this is not only a shared ideal but a collective practice. No one is happy or free alone.
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It should be noted that technically Bhutan can’t be described as Jeffersonian republicanism. It is, after all, a democratic constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system like the United Kingdom. So, it’s not ruled by the king who acts as head of state. Executive power, instead, resides in a council of ministers (i.e., the cabinet) and a prime minister. Still, a republic is first and foremost defined as not being a monarchy, irrespective of its democratic status.
But it, nonetheless, captures the spirit of Jefferson’s vision built on the independent yeoman farmer and landholding citizenry. And, if they got rid of the mostly symbolic remnants of monarchy, they could officially be the real deal, a fully-fledged Jeffersonian republic. A big factor might be the strong defense of local culture that is made possible by its small size and small population, not unlike the Nordic countries, and not unlike the states when the United States was founded under the Articles of Confederation.
There is another similarity that comes to mind. All of this has to do with the alternative visions of modernity, not merely a reaction to it. Anti-Federalists like Jefferson worried about how privatization and monopolization would leave most of the population landless, powerless, and impoverished — as happened in Europe. This worry was based on the observed results of the enclosure movement that ended feudalism and created the oppressed landless peasants who were forced into homelessness, sometimes as refugees or else flooded into cities and sent to colones where they struggled and starved, got sick and died.
These landless peasants weren’t happy, to say the least. And no one cared about their happiness, much less their survival beyond providing cheap labor for emergent capitalism. This desperate and miserable working class, often forced into workhouses and indentured servtude, was close to slavery and sometimes in conditions worse than slavery with their only freedom being death. The land of the Commons and the rights of the commoners they or their ancestors once enjoyed had been stolen from them, and they received no compensation for this theft.
That is what Jefferson, like Thomas Paine, was responding to in proposing land reforms. Maybe the happiness of everyone should matter, not only that of the aristocracy and plutocracy. Yet such Anti-Federalists understood the world was quickly changing. Modernization and industrialization would transform society. They didn’t seek to stop this ‘progress’ but to moderate it’s speed and buffer the worst consequences. This was a countervailing force to the laissez-faire attitude of uncontrolled and unregulated capitalism where capitalists would rule society.
That is maybe what has made Nordic social democracies so successful. Early on, the public demanded interventions to soften the rough edges of tumultuous change. There was an intentional public planning to ensure all citizens benefitted from progress, not merely enriching the already rich and powerful. These countries allowed modernization and have become advanced countries, but they did it without destroying their sense of a shared culture of belonging and freedom. Bhutan, a late-comer to modernization, seems to be following this same path of prudence and public good.
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