Invisible Hearts: More Economics Than Romance

curricula educational resources teaching economics teaching adam smith novels book review

Helen McCabe for AdamSmithWorks

More readable than many textbooks, more accessible than classical texts! But NOT a guide to modern courtship or persuasion.  
“There’s an invisible heart at the core of the marketplace, serving the customer and doing it joyously.”

This is the message of Russ Roberts' The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance (MIT Press, 2002), which looks to teach us all some basic economics via a love story. It’s aimed at those, like misguided heroine Laura, who think that capitalists are all “monsters” out of a Charles Dickens novel, and that classical economics is heartless. Sam, a maverick high school economics teacher, looks to set her straight. 

Laura, an idealistic, liberal young English teacher at the same Washington DC high school as Sam, knows there is so much more to life than money, and favours government interventions to, for instance, prevent people from starving, or from dying in road accidents. Her beliefs are characterised by the book’s hero, Sam, as paternalistic and muddle-headed, proving much too costly, denying people personal freedom, and taking away responsibility for their own actions. As he says, “Maybe some people don’t wear seatbelts because their values of the costs and benefits are not the same as yours”. 

Sam is a very didactic character. This might help teachers looking to use this book to help students understand the basics of economic theory (Sam talks to Laura like he’s lecturing her), but in an era of #MeToo and calling out “mansplaining” I found his unwillingness to take any of Laura’s objections seriously difficult to take. Sam always knows better: Laura is always wrong. Moreover, the idea that Laura somehow finds endlessly being shot down fascinating was quite hard to stomach. Female students (at the very least) may feel the same. Still, Laura’s concerns (about structural inequality, racism, patriarchy, and poverty), and Sam’s responses, may provide useful starting points for conversations with students. 

Similarly, Sam sometimes wins his point because those arguing against him turn out to be hypocritical. It might be true that liberals are more willing to prescribe rules for others than follow them themselves, and whether we’d all follow rules we’d like to impose on others is a good question to discuss, but we should also take seriously the idea that paternalists, and liberals, can be sincere. As a teacher, one might try to get students to identify all the straw men Sam sets up, as well as evaluate his success in knocking them down.

Spoiler alert: alternate chapters do not feature Sam and Laura, and are somewhat more exciting as wicked businessman Charles Krauss shifts his production plants to Mexico, and shafts his workers in the process. They turn out to be episodes from the popular TV show Laura and her friends watch, something along the lines of Succession or Billions. I must admit, I wouldn’t mind watching it myself as it seemed fun (though perhaps the final twist is a step too far). For teaching purposes, they can be skipped – for pleasure, they are one of the more entertaining elements of the book. 

A particularly disastrous moment in Sam and Laura’s on-off courtship comes when she invites him over to dinner to meet her ultra-liberal family. Their challenge to Sam is a challenge to the whole book, and one I don’t think it meets: 
“You just can’t stand the idea that your beloved marketplace can produce inequitable or disastrous outcomes. You spent too much time in grad school swallowing those theories about the marketplace and the invisible hand. Too often that hand is at the throat of the worker or the consumer. We need more benevolent corporations, guided by social policy”. 
Sam’s belief in the “invisible heart” might work when it comes to “Mom and Pop” stores, but seems somewhat naïve when it comes to high finance. Laura’s answer might not be the right one, but it is a useful starting point for discussions with students about what we do need, and whether markets can and do produce bad outcomes (and also what good ones they generate).

Overall, the book also provides an accessible way into basic economic theory, and some ways of engaging with arguments both by those who support “classical” economics, and those who oppose it. It is much more readable than many economics textbooks, and more accessible than the original “classical” texts! Just maybe don’t recommend it as a guide to modern-day courtship, or how to persuade your opponents of your own point of view.

Want to Read More?
Lauren Heller's Adam Smith and Owning It with The Mystery of the Invisible Hand
Shal Marriott's How Professor Smith Helped Me Survive my Undergraduate Degree
Audrey Sullivan's Reading a Titan: Russ Roberts' Books (on Erik Rostad's Books of Titans podcast "Books by Russ Roberts")
EconLib Guide An Economics Reading List Novels, Short Stories, and Science Fiction
Other Teaching resources for ASW
Teaching Resources from other organizations