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Subjective Self-Worth & Division of Emotional Labor

Many people view economics primarily through the lens of market settings. However, at its core, economics is the human science. Insights from economics can penetrate the realm of emotional intelligence. A recent book, The Courage to Be Disliked, by authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga demonstrate some fundamental economic lessons making their way into the philosophy of happiness.

In one chapter, the authors emphasize that feelings of inferiority are personal subjective assumptions. The two main characters reflect upon their physical characteristics.  The teacher was short- and while originally upset about being small, came to appreciate his ability to allow people to relax. His height served his goals in life, allowing him to succeed. He used this example to point out that one’s personal characteristics are not inferior or superior unless people place that value upon themselves.

This insight appears to mirror the insights of the Marginal Revolution. One major puzzle in economics was “why value in use” was separated from “value in exchange”. Why are diamonds expensive when water is cheap? Like the teacher, economists recognize that value (and values) are subjective.

A good, such as a personality trait, is not beneficial or harmful in a vacuum. Instead, a good’s value depends on the demand of individuals, which change, depending on the attitude of those involved. The idea that valuing oneself is a choice challenges the idea that people are stuck in a cycle of low self-esteem. By contrast, the teacher’s view suggests the primacy of individual choice and agency, of change, rather than stasis. Without a market, systems are unable to take advantage of people’s individual preferences and subjective beliefs.

The second economics lesson that’s made its way into the book is that of separating tasks. The teacher claims that those who are “ultimately going to receive the result brought about by the choice that is made”, are those who are responsible for doing tasks. Giving the example of a child, the teacher expresses that the child is ultimately going to face the consequences of deciding whether to study- and should be the one most responsible for doing so.

This division of emotional labor speaks to the issue of property rights and the principal-agent problem. People tend to follow their own interests. If they are responsible for making decisions affecting themselves, they are going to act in ways that benefit themselves. Property rights work, combining the responsibilities of the property with the associated benefit. However, when people take on other’s tasks, they decouple responsibility with effect, creating the principal-agent problem. The principal-agent problem takes place when a principal delegates control of assets to an actor who may have different interests. Politicians tend to spend lavishly with taxpayer funds, and renters tend to be more willing to trash rental properties, than the respective owner.

This idea culminates towards the end of the book, with the provocative claim that, “freedom is being disliked by other people…. It is proof that you are exercising your freedom and living in freedom”. When one can make unpopular decisions, they live freely.

The implication of this claim, interpersonally, is that one needs to be autonomous to be free. In a similar vein, whatever system that’s set up for providing human happiness needs to be elastic enough to allow people to dislike each other, while allowing people to be accountable for their decisions. This lends itself to combining private property with markets is the logical step towards building an emotionally intelligent, happy society.


Isadore Johnson is a campus free speech advocate, an economics and philosophy student, and regional coordinator for Students for Liberty.


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