In Defense of Lego

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Danish toymaker Lego is receiving a fair amount of criticism recently for refusing to sell its blocks at a discounted rate to a Chinese artist/activist.

Lego refused to do so on the grounds that doing so would represent a political statement, something the company has always avoided.

Lego has said that Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is free to use Lego blocks in his project, it’s just that he would have to buy those blocks like everyone else, at the normal retail rate.

Critics say that by refusing to sell at a bulk rate to Chinese artist Mr. Ai, Lego was in fact making a political statement.

I just don’t see the logic of the critic’s argument.

While it is not known what type of exhibit Mr. Ai is planning with the Legos, much of his previous work has been banned in his home country due to his outspoken criticism of China’s government. In fact, last year he created a massive Lego carpet featuring portraits of prisoners of conscience from China and other countries.

I see no problem with a company wanting to be apolitical, and perhaps it’s best that companies do remain politically neutral.

If Lego had agreed to sell to Mr. Ai at a discounted rate,  one could quite reasonably argue that the company was implicitly endorsing his political commentary by supporting his efforts through special pricing of its products. In effect, it would be making a political donation.

If Lego wanted to express its disagreement with Mr. Ai’s work, then it could have commented publicly that Lego did not want to be associated with his works, and would prefer that Mr. Ai no longer use its products.

Lego appears to be uninterested in either scenario, since its company policy is to not get involved in such politics.

So to me, that just left one solution for Lego. Don’t allow the discounted pricing (which would be an implicit endorsement), but also do not ask him to stop using Legos (which would be an implicit disagreement with his work). In other words, stay out of the situation.

This is exactly what Lego did, while also stating that Mr. Ai was free to buy Lego bricks and use them as he sees fit.

Here’s another way of looking at it.

What if Hillary Clinton’s campaign started building Lego models that made fun of Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, and prominently displayed these at her campaign stops around the country. If Clinton’s campaign then approached Lego and asked for a discount on acquiring more bricks, giving such a discount, to me, would be an implicit endorsement of those Lego models. At the same time, if Lego released a press statement asking the Clinton campaign to stop using its blocks, that could then be viewed as anti-Clinton.

So what should Lego do in this case if it wants to remain neutral? Simply stay out of the fight.

That’s what it did with Mr. Ai, and I applaud Lego’s decision.

This does not mean I am against what Mr. Ai is doing; if anything, I am a supporter of his work and what he is trying to accomplish. I just don’t think he has the right to try and force someone, or some company, to support his work. I think it’s fine for an individual to be political, but it’s better when companies remain apolitical.

So I wish both Lego and Mr. Ai success, by continuing to focus on what each of you do best.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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