They Live

John Carpenter

4 November 1988

Directed by John Carpenter, They Live (1988) is a libertarian science fiction horror flick about a man called Nada who discovers a dastardly secret.  What is that secret?  That everyone in society is a victim of alien mind control, that aliens are altering human consciousness without the consent of their victims.  It is for this reason, despite the fact that Nada is not himself a libertarian, that I regard They Live a libertarian movie.

I know not who uploaded this video to the Internet.

The Setting

Nada (played by Roddy Piper) gets a job at a construction site, and soon finds himself living with others in a shantytown.  While it might not be the most ideal circumstance, he aims to make the best of it.  But, this man is also very observant, and it doesn’t take him long to see some that rather odd things are happening.

The Action Begins

One night, government thugs, bearing guns and anti-riot gear, invade the shantytown.  They enter a privately-owned church without the consent of the private owners, and then bulldoze the shantytown, destroying the private property of those living there.  Needless to say, the fact that these criminals worked for the government and were wearing blue suits with shiny badges doesn’t change the fact that they were criminally invading upon the property rights of innocent people.

Nada escapes, but in the process, comes upon a small enclave in which more government thugs were violating individual rights.  This time, the criminals-in-blue were beating up two men—men whose only “crime” had been their use of free speech.

So, to recap, the government thugs completely disregard the right to justly-acquired private property and the right to freedom of speech.

The Weirdness Thickens

Subliminal government propaganda

The next day, Nada discovers what the church was hiding: sunglasses.  But these are special sunglasses—they allow the wearer to block out the alien mind-control signal.  Thus, the viewer can (A) see the aliens for what they really are, and (B) see the submininal messages that the aliens have placed all around the humans, messages like “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “SUBMIT,” and “CONFORM.”  One even says “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” hilariously enough.  Yet another says “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT.”  And these messages are everywhere.

Now, of course, there is nothing inherently unethical about using subliminal messages.  What is unethical, however, is that the aliens are physically altering human consciousness without the consent of the humans whose consciousness they are altering.  They do this by means of an electromagnetic signal, as Nada later finds out.  Right now, however, all he knows is that things look different when he has the sunglasses on from what they look like when he has them off.

Unfortunately for Nada, he makes the mistake of telling the aliens that he can see what they really look like.  So, they call the cops.  When the government thugs arrive, he can see that they, too, are aliens.  These government thugs threaten Nada’s life, saying, “It would be easier if we don’t have to splatter your brains.”  The message is clear: despite Nada having not aggressed against anyone, they are willing to use lethal force against him, all simply to protect their secret.  And, so, Nada opts to use defensive force to protect himself from these aggressors.


Some explanation of libertarian ethics is probably appropriate here.  After all, most libertarians are not opposed to force per se, but rather to the initiation of and the threat to initiate force, which we refer to as aggression.  If liberty is freedom from aggression, and libertarianism the ideology that aims to maximise individual liberty, then it stands to reason that libertarians ought to oppose any and all aggression.  This opposition to aggression is called the nonaggression axiom.  A small minority of libertarians, known as the anarchopacifists, oppose all force, even defensive force; but all libertarians, regardless of stripe, oppose aggression.

In threatening Nada’s life, the two alien thugs committed an act of aggression.  Thus, with the obvious exception of the anarchopacifists, virtually all libertarians would agree that it was not unethical for Nada to use defensive force against his two aggressors.

The action does not end there, however.  When one of the two alien cops aims a gun at Nada, obviously intending to shoot and murder the innocent man, Nada grabs the other cop’s gun and defends his life by shooting the armed government thug.  Again, most libertarians would agree that Nada acted justly in this matter.

An Exquisite Line

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper as Nada

After leaving the alley in which the self-defence occured, the innocent Nada grabs a rifle from the cop car and calmly, nonviolently walks down the street.  When Nada hears police sirens, however, he opts to leave the street, and enters the nearest building.  Unfortunately for Nada, it happens to be a bank.

So, there Nada is, standing in a bank, holding a shotgun and wearing sunglasses.  This is not his lucky day, clearly.

Realising that everyone in the bank will simply assume he is a bankrobber, Nada simply smiles and delivers what is almost universally regarded as the best line in the entire film:  “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass—and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Regretable Actions

When an alien starts shooting at Nada, he retaliates by shooting every alien in the bank.  And this is why I do not consider Nada to be a libertarian.  He shoots all the aliens, without even stopping to think that perhaps some of the aliens are innocent.  This is Nada’s first act of aggression in the entire movie, and it is indeed regretable, for it makes the character less endearing than he would otherwise be.

His regretable acts do not end there.  Next, he abducts a human woman, and orders her to take him to her home.  She complies, but rids herself of him at the first opportunity.  Then, he beats up his friend, Frank, because Frank refuses to try on his sunglasses.

Free Enterprisers?

There are other nonlibertarian characters in the movie, too.  One incorrectly describes the aliens as “free enterprisers” who aim to use the Earth as “just another developing planet.”  Of course, this is poppycock.

The aliens aren’t merely engaging in free enterprise—if they were, there’d be nothing wrong with them.  Instead, the aliens are purposefully altering human consciousness, forcibly preventing humans from seeing what they would otherwise be seeing, without the consent of the humans whose consciousness and vision are being altered.  That’s not free enterprise at all.  In fact, it is the opposite.

Considering that each human is the natural and just owner of her or his own head, we can correctly say that the aliens are infringing upon property rights.  And, considering that respect for property rights is the bedrock principle of free enterprise, those aliens responsible for the mind-control signal can thus correctly be described as enemies of property rights and of free enterprise.

How the Movie Ends

But enough about the unsophisticated opinions of characters who don’t understand what they’re talking about.  Let us instead proceed with the story.

Frank and Nada attend a meeting held by human rebels.  Not long into the meeting, government thugs bust in, murdering innocent people and causing havoc.  Frank and Nada escape into an underground labyrinth of tunnels constructed for aliens and for those humans who have joined forces with the aliens.  This invariably leads them to discover the source of the alien signal.  When the aliens find Nada, they shoot him down in cold blood, but not before he successfully destroys the mind-control device.  Thus, the movie ends with everyone finally being able to see the aliens for what they really are.


Alien politician on the television

Given the copious amounts of anti-free enterprise rhetoric used by a large number of characters, it would be easy for one to simply assume that the political orientation of the film lends itself to state socialism.  This, however, would be a mistaken assumption.  The characters employ anti-free enterprise rhetoric not because free enterprise is the film’s ideological villian, but because the characters really have little or no understanding of economics.  This should come as no surprise, when one considers that the average human in the real world also has little to no understanding of economics.  In that regard, the characters come across as rather realistic.

The film’s rhetoric notwithstanding, the true villian in the movie was the notion that it is ever okay to infringe upon an individual’s natural rights.  Had the aliens relied on a libertarian code of ethics, for example, they would never have established a broadcast signal that alters human consciousness without the consent of the humans whose consciousness they were altering.  It was the aliens’ willingness to aggress, to infringe upon the individual, natural, innate rights of humans—including the right to justly-acquired property—that, ultimately, forces us to regard the aliens and their ideology as enemies.