Reflections on economic activity—the considerations of matters of production, exchange, distribution, and consumption of commodities—are ancient. Mathematicians and philosophers since Kemet and Timbuktu studied the subject under broad academic umbrellas, chiefly concerning trade, commerce and the methods of accounting. In addition they proposed social laws, which governed the exchange of goods and services that in their view produced the equilibrium (Ma’at) in society.

But Economics as a distinct academic discipline separate from the social and political life begun early in the eighteenth century in Europe, a few centuries after the university model of Sankore had reached the North. The need to specify some set of causal factors in tracing out the unintended consequences of individuals’ actions in economic activity arose.

It spurred on the attendant need for “scientific” analysis of economic activity, which propagated a philosophy that there were fundamental, indivisible naturalistic laws—in the same way that the law of gravity might work on a physical system—about which all production and exchange of goods and services revolved.

The works of Cantillon, David Hume, and especially Adam Smith illustrate this need to define Economics as a standalone subject prescribing the systematic inquiry into the “invisible hand” fundamentally at work in conferring wealth to the various nations. Consequently the idea that there were laws to be discovered—like the universal law of gravitation, which would stand at the base of the complex set of interactions that produce and distribute goods and services—occupied philosophers. All economic activity then could be described and, above all, potentially resolved into a set of deterministic laws of an “invisible hand” in much the same way as gravity had become a pervasive “hand” in the analysis of physical systems.

However, as in all formulations of theory about particular subjects, the need for systematization could not escape the basic need for assumption, often parochial assumption. More, formalizations could not circumvent the paradigms of analysis that locked in the intellectual activity of “scientific inquiry” into a whirlpool of a non-accumulative progression. Within assumptions were emergent inescapable philosophies contained by the very “academic” societies that sought to define Economics as a lonely field. One such philosophy at the base of all modern conceptions of Economics was the idea of “value” and what it meant to speak of the “wealth of a nation.”

What is of value? How can one ascertain the [intrinsic] value of an economic good? European philosophers led chiefly by Adam Smith agreed on the idea that the “price” (that is the monetary estimation of a good which was “caused” by an invisible hand) marked its value. That is to say that when a machete used for farming was forged by a blacksmith, the purchasing price maintained the value of the machete. Still, that value was determined by the willing buyer, the farmer through the pegging caused in the larger marketplace by the invisible hand.

That value was dynamic as the price fluctuated between the farming season and harvest season, and from the rainforest to the Atlantic coast in much the same way as the coefficient of gravitation in physical systems varies from one geographic location to another—from one planet to the next.

Like the Ptolemaic period in which scientists insisted that the planet Earth stood at the center of the universe, albeit the pressure of an insidious religious doctrine in forging and forcing that unsophisticated thinking, Economists today put the human being not only at the center of all economic activity, but at the apex of determining what is of value to him.

For instance, the water in a river was of value to a human community that depended on it in so far as one could determine the utility to the human being of that water in the river. The value of water hence, they would claim, was the sum of all utilities derived from the river by an individual.

This reading was certainly bedeviled with short-sighted formulation, if not a totally rudimentary supposition. Not to mention that the formulation lacks even all considerable objectivity.

Take for another instance that this same water in the river is of value to the fish that swims in it. How does one ascertain the value of the water in the river to the fish when one cannot systematically identify the sum of the “price-value” or utilities of the water to the fish?

Accordingly, the type of Economics that arrived through colonial transport to major parts of the world only prescribed the value of matter to a human being and not a fish. To consider the total dimensionality of the value of water in the production and exchange of water was too complex an analysis for the “modern” philosopher. But was it? Why should the value of water to the human be paramount?

Of course, as in all anthropocentric theories, like their Ptolemaic cousins of the past, the foresight of the interconnectedness and complexity of the nature they sought to describe or capture in rigorous indivisible fundamental laws of “invisible hands” ceased to exist. For if it existed the analysis would have become intractable and the need to naturalize Economics as a science would have been lost. The “problem” then was stripped of its most complex parts in order to arrive at an “elegant” set of heuristics and rubrics through which all economic activity around the human can be assessed.

There is more to this point. By defining the “price-value” of a good, the goal of the modern Economist was more concerned with the transfer of goods among humans and not necessarily concerned with the objective determination of their value—set by this invisible hand. Invariably this sort of Economics became equally obsessed with imposing a faux efficiency within the maxims of profit-making and the minimization of costs in producing what had to be consumed by the human being at all costs and not what was “valuable.”

Hence the question and the concomitant implication of scientifically determining the “value” of a good was discarded outright. European philosophers opted instead for a “relative” definition—one that involved the “value” to a human being.  The end result was a concentration of the [intrinsic] value of materials in fewer and fewer places and in fewer and fewer hands and the consolidation of the processes and means of production of these consumables in propertied hands through tools that maximized efficiency and reduced costs.

The philosophy then ran into an infinite regress, with ever widening gaps of inefficiencies, and it became even unclear how one might define ownership from the outset of an exchange. This fine point of a deterministic scientific inquiry—the need to integrate the second order equations of the exchange of goods to ascertain their initial value belongings—was not lost on these philosophers, and in fact their progeny. If a thing without a price has no value then who should own it? Who owns the river? A human being or the fishes that swim in it? By assuming that the water in a river is only of value to the human being who is willing to pay for it, the question arises about who must own the “rights” to the river and hence the debate over “property” and “human rights.”

Rather than heed the parochial, illogical, anthropocentric assumption of the meaning of “value,” a more objective scientific step is to assume that all matter has value. There is no objective reason to assume otherwise. Of course this assumption does not only hearken back to the ancient Economic philosophies of Timbuktu; it also relates more than 12,000 civilizational years of intellectual work in the field of Economics before colonialism. This assumption grounds the problem of the philosophy of European economic thinking, which struggles to identify who might own the river—short of war. In African philosophical thought, all identified living things that depend on the river equally have rights to the river: a straightforward grounding.

Naturally this leads to Narmer’s First Law of Economics: The wealth of the universe is constant. Wealth can neither be created nor destroyed but can only be transferred from one state to another, or from one hand to another. The implication is clear for what colonial Economics strives rather to accomplish, albeit in a Pecksniffian manner. Modern Economics the way it has actually reached Africa and the rest of the world from its European roots through White Logic and White Methods is only concerned about the transfer of wealth, or more correctly the concentration of value, in the hands of a few.

But the enlightened world need not heed this parochialism of colonial Economics. The world can advance to a more civilized and more useful state. The world can offer a more scientifically objective reading of the intrinsic value of matter and energy, and hence all implications of economic activity that arise thereof. With such an appreciation, the transfer of wealth can be better scrutinized with all its unintended consequences of the “invisible hand.”

12 COMMENTS

  1. Narmer Amenuti contends that there is no objective justification for defining the value of goods according to how much an individual is willing to pay for it. Which concurrently implies that a “thing” with a zero price is not valuable even if the components employed in its production were valuable. In addition, such an assumption also implies that all things had at one moment (at their initial moments perhaps), no value. But this sweeping assertion of all things in the universe and of all energies associated with life cannot be justified.
    He reasons that rather it satisfies a straightforward intuition that all matter and all goods produced and exchanged from the concentrations of matter have an intrinsic value – to begin with. That is to say that their non-zero initial value could be determined from an analysis of their current value and the processes involved in the concentration of that value. More, that an objective value-analysis must evolve away from the current anthropocentric Economic analysis of the value of a “thing” to the human being. This way, one can speak mathematically of an “exchange” (a second order differential) or the “rate of an exchange” of a good without the unnecessary condition of zero value.
    But again, to appreciate Narmer Amenuti’s thesis, one must fully grasp how calculus was employed in addressing the pertinent concerns of Newton’s philosophy of mechanics. Although without that, this is still an enjoyable read.

  2. So, Narmer Amenuti’s assertion is that the idea of the zero-value is even without a basis in rigorous mathematical thinking. Absolutely! An examination of the principles of the mathematics bears this fine idea out. Perhaps instead of assume that matter to begin with has a zero value until it has a price, it is better to allow the equations to bring us to the determination naturally. Otherwise the whole idea is forced. And as with all forced equations and manipulations, only ideology lies at the heart!

  3. Mathematically though, it seems odd that Economists will insist on this zero-value of the non-priceable good. But although Narmer’s idea makes more sense, I would rather the assumption be slightly and clearly modified. One cannot know from the second order differential whether the initial conditions of the good, like the “value” is zero or non-zero. And I think this is largely Narmer’s point. It’s makes for a more objective analysis to also include within this definition of value, the value to the fishes that swim in the water as well.

  4. Narmer Amenuti has written a beautiful piece once again. I fear however that the beauty of his ideas is marred by his conflation of UTILITY and VALUE. All things have utility or usefulness even if humans haven’t chanced upon it yet. Insofar as a thing has utility then it would stand to reason that it has a value.

    But when the economist speaks of value he refers to economic value. Such value is expressed through the willingness of a party to acquire it by parting with another “thing” deemed valuable. When two things deemed valuable, each in its own right, are exchanged it permits us a window into HOW valuable the things are in the eyes of the two parties ( not in the eyes of the economist). No matter how valuable a lake is and no matter how well one is able to augment and amplify that value through the use of poetic language people always tend to want to pay a specific PRICE for it. No matter how valuable a fish is to the scheme of things in the universe, no human has ever demanded a universe in exchange for the fish. There is always a price that limits and enables fair exchange.

    If what Narmer Amenuti posits is to be believed and accepted then NOTHING in the universe would ever achieve exchange because one would have to calculate the “thing’s” utility in relation to all the galaxies out there and how its production and consumption affects the same. Nobody would be able to produce a universe in exchange for the “thing”.

  5. In your last paragraph, Atiga Jonas Atingdui, it seems to me you have a keen mind and fully grasps the thesis in Narmer’s essay. Which is shocking for an Economist, a social scientist! That said, isn’t it more appropriate, for the sake of rigor, to include all impressed unbalanced forces in the objective analysis of what is “valuable”? For after all, even the social scientist strives for some rigor. No?

  6. Dade Afre Akufu the problem is there is not OBJECTIVE way of determining value except to find out what you would exchange for the thing.

    The serene scenery of a mountain and a lake mean different things to different people. Some people would care less for such scenery and would rather prefer the city life. There is no way of engaging in FAIR exchange other than allowing the parties themselves to determine what each is willing to part with to facilitate the exchange.

  7. Furthermore, even if humans could engage in a comprehensive calculation of the “true” value of the fish juxtaposed to the animal life out there, the other planets etc etc it would still be a value determined by MAN’s view of what value the fish holds to other animal life, galaxies, stars etc etc. So in the end you would still be left with a price mechanism determined by humans and our perspective.

  8. Atiga Jonas Atingdui, I disagree that we cannot begin, in this century, to find that objective approach. Sometimes the mathematics can be intractable as Narmer asserts but we can dig into the implications of its philosophy at the least.

    For example, in order to determine the “price” of exchange, one can easily do this: The impressed forces (conditions) that warrant an exchange are directly proportional to the change in “value”. That is: F(exchange) = Coefficient x Value.

    We can explore the differential character of the equation above, which is what Narmer asserts as a second order differential equation. In this sense, we do not have to speak of “value” of a thing per se, nor of the “price” per se. We only speak of the “change in value” in the formalization of the theory in the same way that Physicists did for the first law of motion. From there, the integration of that simple equation (F = ma) provided that basis for all deterministic mechanics.

    The LHS of the equation provides as a way to define what an exchange is. This is a solid grounding in mechanics that I think we can explore.

  9. Thanks Dade Afre Akufu and Atiga Jonas Atingdui. My second iteration of this essay will specifically provide the philosophical mathematical basis for such a rigorous mechanical translation of value as in the equation (F = k x Value) or more appropriately, E = k x Value.

  10. A brilliant thesis with valuable contributions here on this thread. But I’ve thought about this several times and I always get stuck as to how to get a world dividdd already into ideologues to look anew into a matter like this.

    This is to say that even Narmer Amenuti himself is one way or the other, not neutral to his ideological and environmental conditioning. so how do you then determine the zero value as basis for utility anew?
    so where do you leave your environmental and ideological conditioning before determining the mathematical zero-value?

  11. It’s difficult if not well-nigh impossible to prove that any theory is objective. Audu Salisu. That said, I think if the Economist must employ some mathematics for his trade, then he might as well begin with the correct mathematical formulation (as far as the practice of mathematics goes). With regards to that point, I think some level of mathematical objectivity can be achieved. Also, I believe that we will always fall into a trap with theory, and models. But some traps are bigger than others. The goal is to make our traps smaller so we don’t erode the value of the environment that we have. I am not sure if this answers your question but consider it an attempt. Lol.

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