Economic Fiction and the Ghost of Ricardo?

by M.G. Piety

If, like many people, you’re planning to read a little didactic fiction this summer, I suggest The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance by Russell Roberts. Never heard of Roberts? Well then, you must not have read his first novel, The Choice: A Fable Of Free Trade And Protectionism, in which eighteenth century economist David Ricardo descends to earth to stop the election of a 20th century protectionist president and which Business Week praised as "a 113 page defense of free trade." Roberts, the John M. Olin Senior Fellow at the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis, appears single-handedly responsible for what A.R. Sanderson of Choice refers to as "the small but growing list of works of ‘economic fiction.’"

I’d heard of "economic fiction" (the trickle-down theory and Enron’s quarterly reports being two of my favorites), but I hadn’t connected it with novels. Certainly novels such as Cannery Row, Sister Carrie and The Grapes Of Wrath (not to mention almost everything by Dickens, Hugo and Dostoyevsky) have socioeconomic themes. I was unaware, however, until a flier announcing The Invisible Heart appeared, unexpectedly like a federal budget surplus, in my faculty mailbox, that economists were had begun to diversify into novel writing.

The subject of the novel is a romance between Sam Gordon and Laura Silver, two teachers at an exclusive prep school in Washington, DC. Sam teaches economics and Laura teaches English. He’s devoted to free trade, she to free verse. He thinks most government regulation is unnecessary, even harmful. He woos Laura through his masterful grasp of economic realities, teaching her, for example, that if you "[f]orce people to buy safety devices [like seat belts] for their cars . . . maybe their kids don’t go to college." Who knew seat belts cost that much? Maybe Laura will hope for a seat belt instead of a diamond.

Sam is not quite your typical romantic hero. His throbbing passion is directed at what he considers oppressive automotive safety regulations. He gets into an argument at a dinner party with one of the other guests, a physician who feels that air bags should be mandatory. The doctor, who works in the emergency room, has the temerity to suggest that people may not always be aware of what can happen to them if they are involved in "a car wreck at sixty miles an hour."

"’Do you really think,’ Sam explodes, ‘that people don’t know what happens to their body when it hits a windshield at sixty miles per hour? Do you think it’s a secret revealed only to doctors and people in driver’s ed. and traffic school who watch those gory movies to deter drunk driving? We know, doctor, we know. Maybe some people don’t wear their seat belts because their values of the costs and benefits are not the same as yours.’"

If that speech were not enough to shame the safety-Nazi into silence, Sam delivers a devastating ad hominem blow: the doctor’s own car doesn’t have airbags!

Sam dashingly opposes what he calls "foreclosing people’s choices." He doesn’t want people to be forced to wear seat belts or to have air bags in their cars. By the same token, he doesn’t want to be forced to pay for medical assistance for "some jerk without insurance [who] splats himself on the highway." Apparently, in Sam’s world, bodies should simply lie rotting on the side of the highway until enough of them stacked up to create an incentive for some entrepreneur to negotiate a government contract to, ahem, pick up the pieces.

After all this talk of bodies splatting on the highway (which takes place while Sam and Laura are waiting for the subway), I wonder whether these love birds will ever get up the nerve to go for a drive.

But Sam’s not all economics and free markets. He reveals his human side, sharing with Laura a story from his childhood. Sam’s dad got in a fight with town officials because he refused to put up a safety railing on the family porch. Sam’s dad thought a little danger was good for people. Like father, like son. Sam thinks there’s "less delight in a world of little danger" "Safety," he explains, "diminishes our "humanity."

No wonder he lives in DC. Few cities in the developed world offer the kind of humanitarian thrills-muggings, shootings, disappearing congressional aides-available almost any time of the day in certain parts of DC.

Sam’s mother had kept quiet during her husband’s battle with the town officials. But "[y]ears later," Sam explains, "she told me she had been glad that my dad had failed that night. She and my dad didn’t always see eye-to-eye on danger and delight."

Danger and delight?

"I guess we don’t either," Laura responds.

Sam doesn’t hold Laura’s obtuseness against her, though. He’s a romantic. "[V]ive la difference," is his response to the revelation that yet another generation of women has failed to grasp that living with danger is essential to our humanity.

I don’t know yet how the book turns out. I’ve followed Sam’s "free market" advice and read only the three chapters available for free on web (www.invisibleheart.com). Will Sam’s talk eventually turn from free market to free love? Is there some groping of the "invisible hand"? Will he show her his widget? Will he sell her short?

If you’re not convinced yet to buy the book yourself you should hear what prominent literary critics are saying about it. Milton Friedman calls it "[a] page turning well-written love story that also teaches an impressive amount of good economics" and George Will describes it as "delightfully didactic."

The book is intriguing. I don’t know whether to hope people continue to wear seat belts so I don’t have to keep subsidizing the emergency medical treatment of people who go splat on the highway, or to lobby for the repeal of the seat belt law so more people can send their kids to college, thus making my job as a university professor more secure. I’ll have to get a copy of the book to find out.

Unfortunately, one of the economic realities of being a professor is my very limited book budget. The brochure promises I can get a free copy if I explain I’m going to use it in a course.

How about "Literature as Ideological Indoctrination?"

M.G. Piety is a professor of philosophy at Drexel University. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu

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