Malaysian libertarian lambasts Western environmentalists

I’m one of the (probably) few Malaysians who’s actually signed up for and read Wan Saiful Wan Jan’s Waubebas.org site on a regular basis. It’s the official website for the Malaysian Think Tank which seems to be a group of Ayn Rand-inspired Malaysian libertarians. I have no idea how big or how influential they are, but apparently Datuk Zaid Ibrahim is a member of their advisory board, so it’s seems like a serious operation.

I pretty much agree with most of the editorials their director general writes, but I take issue with this one that appeared on The Malaysian Insider. Now, I’m a libertarian and I do admit to generally being a skeptic on environmental issues. In particular, I believe that the movement relies too much on general feel-good and not enough on rational cost-benefit analysis. On the issue of global warming, I now believe that a preponderance of scientific evidence indicates the phenomenon is real and is indeed man-made. The only debate is how much damage it would cause, how much it would cost to mitigate the effects and whether that exchange is ultimately worth it.

However, what really annoys me about this particular editorial is that he falls back on the old “let’s bash the Western imperialists” clarion call when he should really know better. Granted, it may well be true that some parties that are in government in certain Western governments may have the intention of using environmental regulations as a backdoor to impose protectionist restrictions on Asian countries, but we shouldn’t allow this side issue to dominate what is ultimately a very important debate.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan implies that all local environmentalists have been brainwashed by their Western compatriots who actually do not have their best interests in mind. Why isn’t it possible that there might be Asians who genuinely want a better environment for themselves and their children, even at the cost of some economic growth? This is surely a choice that Asians must make for themselves, all the while being conscious of the arguments on both sides of the aisle. Equally galling is the implication that since the Western countries achieved their present prosperity in part by despoiling the environment, therefore Asian countries have the “right” to do the same. Why not also say that since the United States built its country on the back of slave labour, Asian countries should be free to do the same?

Make no mistake. I’m as outraged as he is when lefties scoff at the importance of economic growth even while enjoying the material fruits of that growth. But I also do not believe in growth at all costs. As Asians countries continue to industrialize and expand their economics, their people need to do some serious soul searching about the relative weights of their different priorities. It’s not just environmentalism either. There are also important debates to be had about how unequal a society they’re willing to tolerate to achieve higher growth rates, how important social mobility is to them, how much they value free time and myriad other issues.

Blaming it all on Western imperialism is just a cheap trick to short circuit the debate and achieve your objectives without having to directly address the arguments both for and against the issue. If Wan Saiful Wan Jan thinks that global warming is a hoax, then let him marshal the scientific sources to back up his claim. If he thinks that economic growth is important enough in the short-term to justify some damage to environment, let him spell out exactly how much damage he’s willing to tolerate and how much growth he thinks we can achieve in exchange. Then let the Malaysian public decide what to go for.

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