Romance novels and the dismal science don’t normally go together, but the George Mason University economist Russ Roberts has gone a long way toward reconciling the two. His previous novels, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism (Prentice Hall) and The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance (MIT Press), unite economic lessons with love stories; both books have won plaudits from Business Week and the Financial Times. His latest novel, The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity (Princeton University Press), was published in September. Roberts also blogs about economics at Café Hayek and hosts a popular weekly podcast called EconTalk.
Associate Editor Michael C. Moynihan spoke with Roberts in October. To see a video of the interview, go to reason.tv.
Q: What is The Price of Everything about?
A: The book is about what creates and sustains our standard of living, and the hidden harmony that’s all around us. Surprisingly to most people, a lot of that comes from the role of prices in our economy, which is a pretty dry and boring topic, which is one of the reasons I wrote it in the form of a novel.
Hayek called our economic system “a marvel.” We don’t have enough awe at the incredible stuff that our economy is able to achieve with no one being in charge. So what I try to do in the book is give people an idea of the forces that create order in our lives without deliberate design. The virtues of leaving things alone. Not just because freedom is good—which it is—but because of what freedom produces when we are able to choose our own path, choose our own dreams.
I use the example of bagels on a Sunday morning. When you show up at the bagel store and you decide to throw a brunch at the last minute, there are plenty of bagels waiting for you. You don’t have to call ahead. A guy who comes in two hours later doesn’t say, “Where are my bagels?” “Oh, we gave them to that new guy. He threw a brunch and we felt sorry for him.” The profusion of availability in our lives—which is so magnificent, which allows us to be spontaneous, to dream, to plan, to try new stuff—is just so amazing.
Q: Your novels always have an element of romance. What about sex?
A: If you can write a sex scene without causing people to giggle, you write that. I can’t do that. People say, “An ‘economic romance’? Are there any good parts?” I always say: Well, I hope the economics are part of the good parts, but don’t get too excited; it’s PG at best. There’s romance, which is nice. But it’s modest.
Q: What didactic novel has had the most impact?
A: I suppose all novels are didactic. They all want to teach something, but some are more explicit. The most successful didactic novel clearly is Atlas Shrugged, although you could argue that it’s Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist and the work of Dickens was designed to touch the heart and get people compassionate about the poor and the current state at the time of British poor laws. So authors often have a lot of different agendas.
Atlas Shrugged is supposedly the second most influential book in people’s lives after the Bible. One wonders then why the United States is not a more libertarian or liberty-oriented place if that is the case. I think what a lot of people learn from Atlas Shrugged is the lesson that it’s OK to be happy, which is a good lesson. It’s true; it is OK to be happy. But I don’t think everyone absorbed the economic freedom lessons quite the way that they were intended.
Q: Any chance you’ll write a novel about the bailout?
A: I tend to work with romantic comedy, not tragedy. This is a tragedy. Kind of Shakespearean, I think. An opportunity for somebody. Not my strong suit. Nikolai Gogol is who should write this. Maybe Kafka.