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.”