The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, by Russell Roberts

A Lively Debate about the Morality of Capitalism

A few semesters ago I created a freshman honors seminar in economics. While I was pleased with the course overall, like most first-time courses there was room for improvement. During the last class meeting, I asked students to discuss what worked well and what did not. One comment was most memorable. A young woman who had done very well in the course and who had been an active participant in the class discussions said that she left the course convinced that market economies lead to the highest overall standard of living, but remained unconvinced about the fairness of market systems.

With the student’s comment still fresh on my mind, I was pleased to see Russell Roberts’s new book, The Invisible Heart. For in this lively novel, Roberts offers up a debate about the morality of capitalism via the romantic sparring of protagonist, Sam Gordon, and his love interest, Laura Silver. Sam is a free-market economics teacher at Washington’s elite Edwards School. In contrast, Laura, who teaches English, takes a more favorable view of government regulation than of markets. Roberts uses Sam and Laura’s repartee to debunk common caricatures of free-market economics and economists.

Among the shibboleths slain are that economists are concerned only with money, that markets favor firms over consumers, and that market advocates are heartless individuals with no compassion for others. From a pedagogical perspective, Sam and Laura prove to be a successful vehicle for debating the virtues of markets and government regulation. Though it will come as no surprise to readers of his columns in this magazine that Roberts is more sympathetic to Sam’s promarket viewpoint, Laura is no shrinking violet. She suggests, for example, that “capitalism created the poverty we’re trying to fix” and she proclaims that the failure of private charity is “why the government had to get involved during the Great Depression.”

Although Roberts’s primary purpose is illuminating the invisible heart of capitalism, he presents, as Milton Friedman blurbs, “an impressive amount of good economics.” Included are excellent discussions of cartels, “underpayment” of teachers, and the importance of property rights. Perhaps most memorable is Sam’s analogy of so-called exhaustible resources such as oil to a room full of pistachio nuts in which people stop looking for nuts before all nuts are found because it gets too time-consuming to locate nuts among discarded shells. Of course, many readers of this magazine will recognize the similarity between Sam’s discussion of how “a thousand unseen people” help prepare Laura’s bagels and Leonard Read’s essay “I, Pencil.”

As for the obligatory quibbles, I have two minor ones. First, The Invisible Heart is billed as an “economic romance.” I think that is only half-right since it reads more like a mystery. Will Sam, the free-market economist, successfully woo Laura, the English teacher, with warm views of government regulation? Why is Sam’s teaching job in jeopardy and will he use some incriminating documents to blackmail his persecutor into allowing him to keep a job that he likes? What about the subplot involving a dishonest CEO and the Orwellian Office of Corporate Responsibility? I’ll obey the rules of reviewing etiquette and leave the answers to these questions for the reader.

My second quibble concerns Friedman’s blurb. I have nothing against impressive amounts of good economics, something this society is definitely lacking. My quibble however arises from a pedagogical perspective. Since the topics included are wide ranging but necessarily selective, The Invisible Heart is somewhat difficult to integrate into a course. This is a challenge shared by other pedagogical novels, but one that is easily outweighed by the rewarding payoff from Roberts’s superb book.

If you are a reader seeking an enjoyable dose of market-friendly economics or an instructor looking for a way to enliven your classes and break away from turgid textbooks, you must have The Invisible Heart.