The free market marches through history in this didactic novel of ideas.
Capitalism’s progress starts in the Sumerian city-state of Uruk in the third millennium BCE, where temple slave Isia marvels at the quality of the clay water jars she lugs around. Uruk has discovered the miracle of the division of labor–specialist urban potters make better jars than jack-of-all-trades nomads. (Unfortunately, Uruk has not discovered private property rights, so innovation remains anemic.) The narrative shifts to ancient Greece, where Theban aristocrat Glaucus enlightens his son on the nature of money and investment, thence to Renaissance Florence where Giovanni de Medici explains fractional reserve banking. Eighteenth-century proto-Physiocrat Pierre Boisguilbert condemns Louis XIV’s mercantilist policies, and, at an 1856 dinner party in London, John Stuart Mill denounces the Corn Laws and guests wonder what this Karl Marx fellow is up to. Frederick, pen name of ex-Maytag chief executive Hake, uses these vignettes, glossed by short chapter summaries, to instruct readers on the blessings of free trade, unfettered markets and monetarism. The lessons he imparts start out homespun and digestible: â€œIn time of war, shields, arrows, spears, and horses grow scarce, so their value, expressed in coins ... increases naturally.” But as the novel enters the 20th century, the â€œdialogues” turn into rather dense lectures–â€œ[a]fter some more discussion about gold standards, the elasticity of wages, and international currency movements, which none of the Americans fully understood, Keynes decided to take his leave”–supplemented with statistical tables and charts. The last few chapters follow modern-day Federal Reserve functionary Lee and his libertarian buddy Terrence as they contemplate the evils of socialized medicine, the welfare state and indeed all states, which Terrence considers â€œpredatory” and parasitic by nature. These passages, often played out against dull-witted liberal foils, feel smug and doctrinaire.
Really a primer and manifesto, the novel offers an often engaging, if one-sided, apologia for laissez-faire economics.