The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance
by Russell Roberts
Economists of the World, Pucker Up
A review by Jonathan Rauch
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
"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 herecheck 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.
"Excuse me?" said Enid, with a start. "Did you really just say
"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
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 audiencefor that matter, so few economists
can put together two sentences in Englishthat 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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
"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
"Nah. You're right. Too hokey. No one would read it."
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