Another Perspective

The Libertarian Populism of The Lego Movie

Fighting crony capitalism, brick by brick.

By 2.27.14

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As the parent of small kids, it was inevitable that I would see The Lego Movie, but I was totally unprepared for the reaction I had to it. I have conservative friends who have actually suggested boycotts due to the "anti-business" message of the film. So at best, I expected a typical kids movie. At worst, I expected more liberal indoctrination in the form of children's entertainment.

Instead, I found a classroom lesson in the ideals of populist libertarianism.

For those who are unfamiliar, and hopefully without revealing any spoilers, the movie tells the story of an unexceptional construction worker living and working in Bricksburg, a megatropolis that mirrors our own reality, with interchangeable pop bands, overpriced franchise coffee bars, and TV shows that appeal to the lowest possible denominator. Emmet, our reluctant blue hero, falls down a hole, discovers the "Piece of Resistance," and finds himself anointed "The Special"—the citizen who will fulfill a prophecy to bring down Lord/President Business.

Now, much has been written by conservative thinkers about the producers' choice to make "business" the villain of the film. Focusing on that single aspect is a mistake if you want to get the real meaning. As the movie progresses, we see that Lord/President Business has used nearly every facet of popular culture to subdue the masses and stifle their creativity. Everything must conform to specific instructions. These instructions are Bricksburg's regulations and are strictly enforced by government in the form of Scribble-Face Bad Cop (more on that shortly). Creating outside those regulations is not allowed.

The challenge for Emmet, and the fellowship of minifigures that accompanies him on his quest, is to use the "Piece of Resistance" to thwart Lord Business's diabolical plans. But Business is actually not the villain of the film, and anyone who suggests that is missing the point. The real villain is the willing collaboration of business and government (in the form of Scribble-Face Bad Cop) to suppress the citizens.

Scribble-Face Bad Cop, for his part, is portrayed as conflicted between his role as enforcer of Lord Business's rules and his nicer alter ego. The implied message is government wants to do good, but it subverts its own desires to play stooge to business. However, even when the government tries to exist without business, it is crudely drawn and a twisted reflection of what it is when paired with industry.

That larger point is the key to understanding the movie's populist libertarian theme. Yes, government in a pure form should be about helping the people. Government in reality, however, is fickle and easily manipulated. It is willing to become the tool of larger forces with more will. Without those forces, it doesn't really know what it is. In the case of the movie, the force that drives government is business. It could just as easily have been the selfish, self-enriching forces of any socialist-communist leadership, but that's harder to portray with Legos.

Throughout the movie, government and business work hand-in-hand to subjugate the masses, eliminate free thinking, and create a world of control and regulation to keep the little guy (in this case a really little guy) from rising up and threatening the system.

Lord Business, for his part, uses the brain power of master builders (the creative class) to come up with the designs he uses against the people. In this way, business and government are powerless without creativity, yet use a heavy hand to control it. There is probably a point to make here about copyright and intellectual property laws, but let's tuck that aside for now.

Eventually, the hero discovers that what is necessary to defeat the system is teamwork and the creativity of the citizens—acting independently of both business and government. Encouraged to create on their own, and follow their own passions rather than business/government's directions, the people can break free of their shackles.

It is actually that point that made clear the full extent of the libertarian message of this movie. The Legos could have fought Scribble-Face Bad Cop, but it would have done little good with Business pulling the strings. They could have fought Lord/President Business, but Scribble-Face Bad Cop would constantly have thwarted their plans.

It is only by taking on both that the people are able to affect the change they hope to see. Only by rejecting both the bureaucracy and the constant attempts by business to dumb down our culture and use it against us can the hero hope to reform both business and government.

That's a message conservatives should get behind and embrace, not one we should boycott.

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About the Author

Michael Turk is President of Opinion Mover Strategies, a communications consulting company. He was the eCampaign Director for Bush-Cheney ’04 and the first eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee.