The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance
© 2001 Russ Roberts
The Invisible Heart is an oddly sweet argument introduction to the thinking behind classically liberal economics, taking the form of a dialogue between one Sam Gordon, an economics professor, and Laura Silver, an idealistic English instructor who has just begun working at the same private school as Sam. The two hit it off immediately, even though Laura thinks economists are soulless cretins obsessed with money at the expense of the noble expressions of the human spirit, like art and safety regulations. Sam is a lonely, embattled man, and he wants desperately to be understood by Laura, who — despite not sharing Sam’s views — finds his earnest passion fascinating. And so as a year transpires, the two chance to meet time and again; first accidentally, and then as their friendship develops, deliberately. Their relationship is fed by argument, for the book is an extensive argument for libertarianism.
Laura is, by virtually everyone’s meter, a liberal: she’s very much concerned about the poor and oppressed. She believes firmly in safety regulations, minimum-wage laws, environmental protections — the state exists to right the wrongs created by capitalism, to curb the abuses of the free market. Sam, in contrast, is a “classical” liberal who believes the freer the market, the freer the people. He takes Adam Smith’s notion of an invisible hand at work in the marketplace for granted: let the market work, and things will sort themselves out. Companies that produce bad products will go out of business; businesses that don’t pay well enough won’t be able to find workers.
Although Sam’s view is partially pragmatic –letting things flow naturally is considerably easier than trying to engineer everything — he’s also driven by principle. People shouldn’t meddle with the lives of others, and they certainly shouldn’t try to justify their interference by using the state to do the meddling. Sure, seatbelts are a great idea — but making it illegal not to wear a seatbelt is an abominable one. What right does the government have to tell people how they may or may not use their own property? Sam also points out that meddling always has unintended consequences: when the Baptist ban drinking on Sundays, the moralists may cheer — but so do the bootleggers, because now they can charge a premium for hooch that day. By the same token, when the state mandates the use of scrubbers to clean factory emissions, the manufacturers of those scrubbers give a cheer.* Why not simply fine companies that emit noxious fumes and let that be an incentive for them to find their own best way of eliminating emissions, rather than forcing them to buy a particular product, and thus enrich only a few? Spread the wealth around — embrace competition. Environmental protection, incidentally, is the one area where Gordon isn’t so much a free marketeer, but still manifestly libertarian. He believes firmly in personal responsibility, which is why he wears seat belts but hates the idea of making other people wear theirs. But whereas a driver choosing comfort over safety only endangers his own life, a company dumping waste into a river or into the air hurts everyone. They should take care of their own messes — but care should be taken in making them do it, as with the scrubbers example.
It’s hard not to like Sam, even if you disagree with him, as Laura does. He’s a nice guy; like Laura, he wants a better world, but unlike he thinks he should be brought about in an organic way — that it should emerge from the bottom-up, from the marketplace, rather than being forcibly constructed by states, from the top down. His arguments sometimes seem counter-intuitive; he defies expectations. Although an economist primarily concerned with self-interest, Sam isn’t himself particularly focused on wealth. One of his arguments with Laura is over the question: are teachers underpaid? Sam thinks not. Yes, their salary is considerably less than most others, but they’re compensated in different ways. They have the summers off, for instance, the work becomes easier with time, and they have the chronic joy of seeing “lightbulbs come on in students’ heads”. If they were truly underpaid, the school would be unable to find people to fill the positions. Besides, he says; it’s so much easier to be content with what you have. Epicurean simplicity isn’t what I would expect from an advocate of capitalism, the ethos of which seems to be MORE!
Although I, like Laura, don’t quite agree with all of Sam’s arguments, it’s difficult not to find his earnestness compelling. His principles are outstanding, but it’s easy to argue for the free market when you are protected from the fray. The Invisible Heart‘s author, Russ Roberts, is essentially Sam Gordon: a genuinely nice and fantastically interesting fellow who teaches economics, though at the university level. How can a university economist, safely ensconced in an ‘ivory tower’, feel comfortable telling people struggling to get by on a minimum wage that said minimum is a bad idea, as it prices those willing to work less out of the market? And it’s easy to say that a factory that didn’t pay enough won’t find workers, but that’s preposterous: when unemployment is high and people are desperate for food, they will accept despicable conditions because they have no other options. There isn’t competition for employment in a one-factory town.
And yet despite these reservations, The Invisible Heart stirs me. I wish I’d purchased it instead of borrowing it through the interlibrary loan system, because it’s one I’m going to want to revisit. If you want your assumptions questioned, if you want your mind to be provoked into thought by someone who disagrees with you but who is so nice about it that you feel more invigorated by the challenge than insulted, this is a book to read. Although about economics, the ‘dismal science’, Invisible Heart is anything but dismal, freely using poetry, literature, and philosophy to explore the meaning of life.
* For a more real-world example: I couldn’t help but think of reading about a politician who advocated mandatory drug testing who turned out to be bankrolled by the manufacturers of the testing supplies. Baptists and bootleggers…
EconTalk, the author’s podcast.