Review: The Invisible Heart in The Atlantic

Economists of the World, Pucker Up

A review of a romantic novel set in Washington (where else?) that makes a case for free-market economics

by Jonathan Rauch


The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance

by Russell Roberts
MIT Press, 271 pages, $22.95
“You know,” Enid said, stirring her cappuccino and nibbling pecans, “people don’t read enough book reviews.”

“That’s because most book reviews are boring,” replied Frank, pausing between slurps of espresso through his Pokemon straw to crack a walnut between his molars. “How about turning reviews into stilted but readable fictional dialogues, with irrelevant details amateurishly inserted for verisimilitude? One of the characters could be the author’s mouthpiece, and others could serve as foils.”

“Sounds a little hokey to me,” said Enid, crinkling her nose in that adorable way. “And patronizing, don’t you think?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Frank said. “It worked for Plato. And Galileo. They weren’t dummies. And here—check this out.”

Reaching into his brief case, he extracted a compact hardcover volume and handed it across the table.

The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance,” said Enid.

“Yep,” said Frank. “By Russell Roberts. MIT Press. 271 pages. $22.95.”

“Excuse me?” said Enid, with a start. “Did you really just say all that?”

“No,” Frank said. “But if this were a book review, I would have. Anyway, it’s a novel that argues for free-market economics. It’s different, I’ll say that. I can’t remember the last novel I read that ended with 14 pages of source notes and recommendations for further reading.”

Enid looked dubious. “A novel about economics? Who is this guy? Let’s see: the John M. Olin Senior Fellow at the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. That’s a free-market, pro-business think tank. Author of The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism. Doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, America’s headwaters of academic free-market economics.”

“Did you just say all that?”

“No,” said Enid. “But if this were a book review, I would have. So, what happens?”

“See, the protagonist is Sam, this wonky libertarian who wears Adam Smith neckties and teaches economics at a highbrow private high school in Washington. Laura teaches English at the same school, and she’s a well-meaning but provincial liberal who always assumed that free-marketeers want to starve children and eat the poor. Sam is falling in love with Laura, and Laura may be starting to like Sam. But she can’t love him until he can persuade her that he isn’t a monster who wants to starve children and eat the poor.”

“Ah, that classic story: Boy meets girl, boy spouts hard-core free-market theories that repel girl, boy gets girl.”

“So anyway, Sam and Laura have recently met and are having coffee together, and Sam is explaining why free markets drive wages up, not down:

“About 10 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized and less than 5 percent earns the minimum wage. So why do you think the other 85 percent or so makes tens of thousands of dollars above the minimum wage? How do we manage to avoid being exploited?”

“I’ve never thought about it. It’s a good question.”

“Since the mid-’50s, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has declined almost every year….”

“Feel the romance!” Enid said.

“Then Sam starts to fall for Laura, and they’re having dinner, and here’s the dialogue:

They ate, talking of school and the challenges of dealing with adolescents. Laura filled Sam’s bowl again, then refilled her own.

“So tell me,” she said, “what’s wrong with welfare programs?”

Sam looked into her eyes. She was smiling and waiting for him to speak.

“Wait, give me that,” Enid said. “Here, from the acknowledgments: ‘The book got rejected a lot in its early and late incarnations.’ I think I can see why.”

“OK, so Russell Roberts should keep his day job. But didactic novels always fail as art; the question is whether they make their points in a way that engages while instructing. The book is a pleasant read, with a sense of humor about itself and a genuinely inventive twist. And so few economists even bother trying to communicate with a general audience—for that matter, so few economists can put together two sentences in English—that it’s kind of endearing when some think-tank professor with a passion for Adam Smith and Milton Friedman tries to write a novel to sell ideas.”

“Like, what ideas?” asked Enid, her bushy unibrow rising in a coltish arc.

“It’s pretty much a primer on laissez-faire: Why air-bag laws and other varieties of paternalistic legislation are ineffective and demeaning, why pay inequity isn’t a bad thing, why unfettered capitalism is good for consumers, why welfare should be privatized, why anti-discrimination law is unreasonably intrusive, why paying low wages to Third World workers isn’t exploitation, plus the benefits of emissions trading….”

“I see,” Enid said. “Milton Friedman meets Harlequin romance. Who would want to read that? Why did you read it?” Suddenly she was eyeing him suspiciously.

“Pure curiosity. The same reason I read the Holocaust comic strip. But after a few pages, I had to give the book some respect. It’s intellectually serious. The author handles his ideas rigorously, and he lets Laura ask tough questions. He also brings passion and eloquence to his defense of capitalism as a system whose benefits are primarily moral and only secondarily economic. He wants to convince us that capitalism’s great merit is not that it makes us rich but that it allows us to be better people who live more complete and responsible lives.”

“Yeah, because we can shop till we drop.”

“No, because capitalism encourages us to strive and reach and make the most of ourselves. What’s best about capitalism isn’t its material benefits: ‘It’s the ability of the market to let us feel alive as a free people making our own choices as we go through life.’ Roberts is determined to debunk the standard image of capitalism as an amoral war of each against all: ‘Capitalism involves struggle, but it has an invisible heart beating at its core that transforms people’s lives. If you give it the chance.’ ”

“Are you saying you liked this book?”

“I’m saying it’s a bad novel but a good lecture,” Frank said. He paused, thought, and added, “And it’s sociologically interesting.”

“How so?”

“Sam, the protagonist, is a total outcast. He has no social skills, and he knows it. He is so used to being regarded as a freak by his liberal colleagues and peers that he has given up fighting the image. Everything he sees on TV and in movies paints free-marketeers as cruel and villainous. At a dinner party, Laura’s brother denounces him as a snake, a danger, and a heartless propagandist for corporations. Even his sister teases that there is something wrong with him, and Sam says that she’s probably right. ‘It comes from a lifetime of political incorrectness and coping with the smugness of the opposition,’ he says. In his very first conversation with Laura, he says, ‘If you had my views, you would be lonely and embattled, but you could take solace in being right.’ ”

“And that’s interesting? Why?”

“Liberals think that free-marketeers are taking over the world, literally. But free-marketeers feel despised and rejected. They feel that, as the price for their intellectual and political successes in the past 20 years, they’ve been cursed and banished to outer social darkness by the liberal cultural elite. To judge from Roberts’s book, they’re more demoralized than they usually like to admit.”

“The loneliness of the long-distance libertarian.”

“Bingo. Couldn’t have said it better if I’d scripted it.”

“So,” Enid said, “are you saying I should read this?”

“If you’re interested in how the world looks in 2001 to what Roberts calls ‘free-market romantics’ like himself and any number of libertarian activists and intellectuals, you could do a lot worse.”

“Maybe you should write a review,” Enid said. “Do the fictional dialogue thing.”

“Nah. You’re right. Too hokey. No one would read it.”