September 22, 2005

September 22, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Gross National Happiness

A new constitution is a revolutionary moment in any country's history. Drafting a document meant to enshrine a nation's bedrock principles, best aspirations and practical operations is tough. Just ask the folks who have worked desperately to hammer out a workable constitution for a free Iraq.

But Iraq isn't the only nation to face the challenge of drafting a constitution recently. Afghanistan adopted a new Constitution last year. And then there's the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Nestled in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan remained virtually isolated from outside influences up until about 30 years ago. Since then, it has been slowly opening up to the rest of the world. In March, Bhutan produced a draft constitution. It's a fascinating blueprint for a new type of revolution -- one as exotic and steeped in Buddhist religion and culture as the country that produced it.

Constitutions inevitably reflect a nation's religiosity. Iraq, in drafting its constitution, struggled greatly over the question of how much of Islamic law it should adopt as secular law. Our own constitution is firmly grounded in Judeo-Christian culture. Today, more than 200 years later, America is still struggling to decide how religious our official society can be. Witness, for example, the Supreme Court's split-decisions on where, when and under what circumstances public buildings may display the Ten Commandments.

On matters religious, Bhutan has made its choice clear: Buddhism is the spiritual and cultural heritage of the country. Period. As a result, Buddhism is an integral, vital part of the new constitution.

Yes, portions of the constitution would look familiar to Westerners. It proposes a parliamentary democracy. And it protects many of the same fundamental rights found in the American Constitution -- freedom of speech and the press, for example.

But despite all that familiarity, the Bhutanese draft constitution contains many distinctive provisions. Most of these can be traced to the Buddhist religion. Here's one example: Buddhist theology finds its way into the constitution in the form of a state commitment to maximize "Gross National Happiness." It's hard to conceive of a country where the stated purpose is to make the citizens happy -- but there it is in Bhutan.

Another example: Right next to the section on fundamental rights, there is a section on fundamental duties -- and those duties are mostly derived from Buddhist culture.

So the constitution, in a requirement that is very unusual to Western eyes, actually requires citizens to be good Samaritans. "A person shall have the responsibility to provide help, to the greatest possible extent, to victims of accidents and in times of natural calamity," it says. There is a constitutional duty to be a pacifist, to "uphold justice" and to "act against corruption." Can you imagine provisions like that in a Western constitution?

Bhutan's new constitution has another appealing provision. Even though the King remains an absolute monarch, the draft provides for his mandatory retirement at age 65 and provides a mechanism that may be used to compel the King to abdicate his throne. In other words, the people can force a King out, to be replaced by his successor.

Most Bhutanese didn't really want this new rule. But the King insisted -- for the good of the country. When else in history has an absolute monarch insisted on the limitation of his own power?

Bhutan is at a remarkable moment in its history. In America today, much of the original text of the Constitution lies forgotten, encrusted beneath more than 200 years of judicial interpretation. Bhutan, by contrast, is at the beginning of its journey, starting with a constitution based on underlying Buddhist principles -- a mixture never before tried in human history.

Paul Rosenzweig is a senior fellow in the Heritage Foundation Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and a former Justice Department lawyer.

About the Author

Paul Rosenzweig
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies