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(1910-1993)
Kenneth Ewert Boulding
 
: Journal of Economic Issues, Dec94, Vol. 28 Issue 4, p1187, 14p
Solo, Robert A.
KENNETH EWART BOULDING: 1910-1993. AN APPRECIATION
The late Kenneth Boulding was a controversial economist even among the heterodox. He was also an important influence on many readers of the JEI. Three articles and one note describe some of the reasons why.
--Editor
My purpose is to offer a glimpse of the vast vision and great knowledge of Kenneth Ewart Boulding, whom I consider to be the most creative social scientist of our time. But first a word concerning the man
He was born in Liverpool on January 18, 1910, of a non-conformist, working-class family. His mother had been a lady's maid. His grandfather was a blacksmith. His father was a plumber who ran his own small business in a shop behind the house, and both his father and grandfather were lay preachers who made the circuit of little Methodist churches several times a year. He was the first of his family to go beyond elementary school. After attending the Liverpool Collegiate School on a scholarship, he won a scholarship in chemistry to New College, Oxford. After a year, he shifted to politics, philosophy, and economics and graduated from Oxford with first class honors. When class bias kept him from a post at Oxford, he came to the United States on a Commonwealth Fellowship, studied at the University of Chicago with Frank Knight and Henry Schulz, and later at Harvard with Joseph Schumpeter. In 1934 he returned to England to take a post at the University of Edinburgh. In 1937, starting with Colgate University, he begin his long and illustrious career in the United States and Canada as a professor at McGill University, at Iowa State University and at the University of Michigan. He retired as distinguished professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He served as president of the American Economics Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory, the Association for the Study of the Grants Economy, and the International Studies Association.
Though he published more than a thousand items in 30 subject areas, I will rely primarily on the three I consider his most encompassing: A Reconstruction of Economics [Boulding 1950], The Image [Boulding 1956], and Ecodynamics [Boulding 1978], perforce excluding the wealth of his contributions on problems of the environment, human betterment, grants economics, agriculture, labor, ethics, religion, Quakerism, peace, war, and the resolution of conflict. Nor do I mention his poetry.
Reconstruction was the work of a young man, an ebullient display of his mental muscles, demonstrating a mastery of the conventional lore of economics. It covers the microeconomic terrain of perfect and imperfect markets with production curves of all varieties, of uncertainty, expectations, gambling, insurance, moving into the equation of saving and investment and other identities of Keynesian macro theory, with a chapter on the Keynesian offset role of government in maintaining full employment. His multifaceted economy in a state of dynamic disequilibrium easily accommodated to the mass unemployment of Keynesian theory.
There is besides in Reconstruction a radical departure from neoclassical economics where the theory of the firm is so formulated that none of its arguments can be tested against the business record. There is no analogue in the observable and recorded to the motivation (profit maximization) and the system of behavior (marginalism) conventionally attributed to the firm. Boulding would root the theory down in the central instrument of business decision: the balance sheet, which details the varying character of throughputs, reflects the strategic deployment of assets, and recounts the birth, growth, and death of the firm. The analytic relevance of the balance sheet and of the asset account is a constant refrain throughout with its most telling demonstration in the relation of cumulating inventories to final outputs.
From the perspective of the balance sheet, the economy is a universe of shifting populations: a population of firms, and a population of assets--capital items, financial items, inventories of materials and of products whose competitive or cooperative interactions may or may not produce a state of equilibrium. The "homeostasis" of the firm striving to maintain its viability depends on the interdependence, interaction, balance, and deployment of these populations. Thence, Boulding is led to formulate a general theory of interacting populations encompassing the social and biological sciences. "Reality, in its quantitative aspect, must be considered as a system of populations . . . The general study of the equilibria and dynamics of populations seems to have no name; but as it has probably reached its highest development in the biological study known as 'ecology,' this name may well be given to it" [Boulding 1950, 5].
. . . in calling society an ecological system we are not merely using an analogy; society is an example of the general concept of an "ecosystem" that is, an ecological system of which biological systems--forests, fields, swamps--are other examples [Boulding 1950, 6].
While he devoted only two chapter to ecological analysis, with equilibrium and disequilibrium models of complementary, competitive, parasitical interactions, of life cycles, of homeostasis, applicable in the analysis of both social and biological phenomena, this was an important step in his evolving vision of the universe.
In Reconstruction, Boulding viewed the patterns of economic cum ecological behavior as from a mountain top. In The Image, he focused on the inner workings of the mind of the behaving individual. I will venture a series of quotations, snippets if you like, from The Image to convey the flavor and character of this extraordinary work.
As I sit at my desk, I know where I am. I see before me a window; beyond that some trees, beyond that the red roofs of the campus. . . . I know however more than I see. Behind me, although I am not looking in that direction, I know there is a window, and beyond that the little campus of the Center . . . ; beyond that the Coast Range, beyond that the Pacific Ocean . . . I have a fair idea of where everything is located on that globe. . . . I visualize the globe as a small speck circling a bright star which is the sun . . .
I am also located in time. I know that I came to California about a year ago, . . . I know that about ten years ago a great war came to an end . . . The great civilizations pass before my mental screen . . . Greece follows Crete, Rome follows Assyria.
I am located in a field of personal relations. . . . I am a professor in a great state university . . . in September I will go into a classroom and expect to find some students in it, and begin to talk to them and nobody will be surprised . . . I am a husband and a father, I know that there are people who will respond to me affectionately, and to whom I will respond in a like manner . . .
What I am talking about is . . . my Image of the world. Knowledge has an implication of validity, of truth. What I am talking about is what I believe to be true; my subjective knowledge . . . that largely governs my behavior. . . behavior depends on the image [Boulding 1956, 3-6].
Boulding explains the formation, development, growth, transformation of the image; that which is heritage, that which comes through the force of authority, of the bombardment of messages to be ignored, rejected, or accepted, the tests of experience, the value-based resistances to change, the process of normal learning and the revolutionary transformations that come as revelation, image of what was, what is, and, into dark depth of uncertainty, of what will be, of what can be, of what should be; and of the shared or public image that delineates the group and is the core of every social organization and the prerequisite of all orderly social interaction.
Even the mechanism can be endowed with an image. Thus, "the thermostat has an image of the outside world in the shape of information regarding its temperature. It has also a value system in the sense of the ideal temperature at which it is set. Its behavior is directed towards the receipt of information which will bring its image and its value systems together" [Boulding 1956, 22].
The plant "'knows' when it is time to put out its leaves, to flower, to fruit, and to die. It has a time sense which includes, at least, the round of the seasons. . . . 'First the blade, then the ear and then the full corn doth appear'" [Boulding 1956, 23-24].
The plant's image is contained within the gene, replicating itself endlessly through a process of cell division, imprinting instructions that organize the throughput of matter into the creation of an organism, whether plant or animal, that is wholly unlike itself (genotype producing phenotype). The gene knows a great deal but it can learn nothing: its image is closed, immutable. "The gene is a wonderful teacher, but a poor learner" [Boulding 1936, 37]. It learns only through mutation.
On the other hand, even the simplest animal is capable of learning, for it possesses an active, open image of its environment that can be changed and hence formed through the messages of experience. The more highly developed animals "have not only a degree of self-consciousness, they have quite complex value systems and experience emotions of rage, affection and so on" [Boulding 1956, 24].
A human's image is of another order of complexity and power. With language and the archive, its capacity for extension and development moves beyond the reach of any individual's experience. "Because of his capacity for abstract communications and language and his ability to enter in imagination into the lives of others, man is able to build organizations" [Boulding 1956, 28]. For the participating individual, there must be a "public image of the organization in which he plays a role or which comprises his environment" [Boulding 1956, 28].
"The basic bond of any society, culture, subculture, or organization is 'a public image'" [Boulding 1956, 64]. Hence, every civilization, every society, every culture and every subculture, as the price of its survival, is geared to the dissemination, preservation, and perpetuation of its public image. Within the broad and encompassing public image of the nation are many subcultures and sub-universes of discourse, each a "group of people sharing a public image" [Boulding 1956, 133]. Thus, there is an image of science held by scientists and a different image of science held by those who are not scientists. So also for the different sciences, religions, and sects and cults. These images are born, proliferate, interact, and are manifest in behavior and its consequences.
Boulding proposed the idea of the image "as the abstract foundation of a new science" [Boulding 1956, 148] to be called Eiconics. Curiously, and quite independently of the publication of the The Image, there did occur in the 1950s and in the decades that followed a revolutionary transformation of the social and behavioral sciences associated with the term structuralism, which hinged on the concept and study of the image (call it cognitive structure, or paradigm, or episteme, or ideology). This was the case in the work of Jean Piaget in psychology, of Thomas Kuhn and Michael Foucault in the history and philosophy of science, of Noam Chomsky in linguistics, of Claude Levi Strauss in anthropology, and others.[1] Though The Image was the first and in my view by far the finest American structuralist essay, it had no visible impact on economics, possibly because Boulding offered his vision as a suggestion and a scaffolding upon which others might build. The economist's image of his world is alas very difficult to penetrate and even more difficult to change. But perhaps if Boulding had brought his vision to bear in the analysis of a concrete phenomenon, proposing a policy resolution, as for example in regard to underdevelopment, something of his message might have reached the practitioner.
Ecodynamics presents a grand vision of the avenues of evolution--physical, chemical, biological, social--and of the evolution of evolution. Building on Reconstruction, it extends the theory of populations, with competitive and complimentary populations finding their equilibrium in the niches of the ecosystem. It builds on The Image with the gene as teacher in biological evolution and with the image as the phenotype able to learn through experience in human history.
Within the dynamic process spanning 10 billion years, three great patterns are envisaged. Physical evolution from the most elementary particles to elements "formed by combining protons and electrons; then of chemical compounds; then finally of increasingly complex molecules from amino acids, and proteins to the great watershed of DNA, the beginnings of life" [Boulding 1978, 29]. With the onset of life begins the vastly more rapid phase of biological evolution.
Societal evolution begins when Man, this animal who speaks and is able to generate images beyond the reach of his personal experience, emerges.
In the evolution of complex structures, there seems always some element of know-how:
Perhaps it is not stretching the metaphor too far to say that helium "knows more" than hydrogen because it knows how to have two electrons whereas hydrogen only knows how to have one. Nevertheless, what happens in the evolution of the chemical elements . . . is increasing complexity of structure, which has many parallels to the increase in complexity of genetic structures in biological evolution or of the knowledge-structure in societal evolution . . . .
Biological evolution is clearly a process in the field of informational complexity. In a quite literal sense no humans could have been produced ten million years ago because the earth's genetic structure did not know how to do it . . . .
When we get to societal evolution the paramount role of human knowledge is very clear. All human artifacts originate in human knowledge. Just as the biosphere could not have produced a human being ten million years ago because it did not have the know-how, the social system could not have produced an automobile a hundred years ago because it did not have the know-how. It is a powerful and accurate metaphor to see the whole evolutionary process from the beginning of the universe as a process in the increase of knowledge or the information structure [Boulding 1978, 3233].
The theory of evolution is not science. It is rather a great poetic vision that has enabled us to perceive new facets of reality and that, in the theory of natural selection, offers an enormously important clue to the dynamics of the universe.
Darwin's metaphors were unfortunate and misleading. The phrase "survival of the fittest" . . . is singularly empty of meaning, because if we ask "What are the fittest fit for?" the answer, of course, is "to survive" so all this tells us is the survival of the surviving, which we knew anyway. A more accurate metaphor would be the survival of the fitting, the fitting being what fits into a niche in an ecosystem. There are innumerable niches and hence innumerable strategies for survival . . . There are niches for the predator and niches for the prey; there are niches for the strong and niches for the weak; there are niches for the selfish and niches for the altruistic. The principle of natural selection itself tells us nothing about what will survive, or what qualities and properties give survival value" [Boulding 1978, 110].
Unfortunate and misleading also is Darwin's phrase "struggle for survival" with the implication that it is the strongest and best fighters who survive. It is, after all, not the rabbit but the lion and the tiger that are threatened with extinction. And in fact "struggle" is rare in the biosphere. "Populations interact, some decline to extinction, and some expand. In an ice age the tundra advances on the forest, but in no sense is there a struggle between them . . . . [with] more complex animals, of course, both effort and fighting become more common, but even in the predator-prey relationship there is catching and eating rather than fighting" [Boulding 1978, 110].
The sheer expansion and contraction of populations act upon and react to the development of both material artifacts and social organizations. Thus, the material artifact, DDT and malarial control in the tropics, produced a population explosion that, threatening catastrophe, demands new forms of social organization [Boulding 1978, 218].
A species is selected because it is well adapted to a particular niche. But niches are continually shrinking or expanding, appearing and disappearing, as a function of change in the natural environment and of genetic change in surrounding species. Given that continuum, it is not adaptation but adaptability that counts for survival.
The niche is prior to the species, and quite different species will adapt to its functional requisites. Whenever there is an empty niche, there is a probability that some mutation, whether genetic or migrational, will produce a new species to occupy it:
The concept of an "empty niche" is a hard one for biologists because it is very difficult to study what did not happen and what is not there. In social systems . . . empty niches can be more easily recognized. There is an empty niche for instance, in the ecosystem of human artifacts for a battery that would store large quantities of electricity cheaply. There have been enormous payoffs for this for nearly one hundred years, yet it has not been invented. Even in the biosphere there is clearly an empty niche for anything that will eat nylon . . . . A mutation in a bacterium, for instance, which will enable it to eat nylon . . . would immediately create a species able to occupy an empty niche [Boulding 1978, 116].
The image appears as crucial in Boulding's treatment of societal evolution. Here the record is in human artifacts, not only in material structures such as buildings and machines, telephones and radios, but also in organizations including the extended family, the tribe, the nation, and the corporation. All such artifacts originate in and are sustained by images in the human mind. Civilization and civilized man, in the language that he knows, the skills he acquires, the whole heritage of tradition and manners he has learned, are human artifacts. Everything in biological dynamics has its parallel in the dynamics of societal evolution. Human artifacts are species also and interact competitively or cooperatively as do the biological. Thus, the automobile is competitive with the horse and has reduced their number; it is cooperative with gas stations and has increased their number; and it is a voracious predator with regard to oil supplies. As there is a genosphere, there is also a noosphere, the "totality of the cognitive content, including values, of all human nervous systems, plus the prostatic devices by which the system is extended and integrated in the form of libraries, computers, telephones, post offices, and so on" [Boulding 1978, 122].
Parallelism exists also in the production of human artifacts. "An automobile begins as an image in the mind of a human being, or perhaps in a set of related images in the minds of a group of human beings. These are translated into drawings, blueprints and instructions, which are the genotypes of the production of human artifacts. These produce messengers (social enzymes) in the form of instruction that can direct energy towards the selection, transportation, transformation of materials . . . until finally an automobile emerges off the assembly line into the womb of the factory" [Boulding 1978, 124]. There is also a formidable force of replication in the capacity of societies to spread the word or to extend their works and populations over the breadth of the earth. And mutation has its equivalent in invention; inventions may close or open niches in the social system.
The capacity of the human mind to project images of the future as plans, goals, and expectations introduces a special quality into societal evolution, making man to some degree the architect of his future. It also provides the crux of learning for we learn by changing the image in response to failures in the planned and expected.
The evolution of human knowledge also has its stages; from the (folk) knowledge of that which can be directly and individually observed and experienced, to the imaginative and speculative ("literary-philosophical") projection of images beyond the realm of direct experience, then to science in the open and systematic testing of hypothetical images through experiment and measurement. Three great epochs in the expansion of the niche of the human race correspond to these three forms of knowledge formation. First in the advent of Homo sapiens "as a language forming, image-making, artifact-making, art-creating, organization-making being . . . [who] expanded his niche to the whole planet, excepting the South polar region . . . wherever there were animals to hunt or plants to gather" [Boulding 1978, 136]. His cumulation of folk knowledge led to the development of neolithic agriculture and the domestication of animals, which opened another horizon in expanding the niches open to the human race; providing the surplus to support armies and temples and priests and an educated elite with its sages and philosophers and its laws and its literatures, creating the epoch of civilizations. Science and its application to the production of human artifacts opened yet another epoch ("post-civilization") with another proliferation of niches for humankind.
Finally, in the societal dynamic, Boulding identifies three modes for the organization of interactive and collective behavior that he calls the threat system, the exchange system, and the integrative system. Though most often associated with the polity, threat and coercion play a role for domination and discipline in all existing social and economic systems (in punishing the child, in flunking the student, in firing the worker, in ostracizing the heretic, in strikes and lockouts, in imprisoning the criminal). In the system of threat and counter threat, finding a precarious equilibrium in the balance of terror has been an element in the process of conflict resolution.[2]
Exchange (the market) as a social organizer plays a role in all actual social and economic systems. The focus of neoclassical economics is on a particular system of exchange.
The integrative system is less familiar. Yet beyond coercion, beyond exchange, there is a great range of emotional forces and human drives that integrate the group and serve to organize interactive and collective behavior, manifest in the church, the lodge, the family, the lynch mob, the patriotic assembly, and the science discipline. The species of the integrative system are omnipresent, yet it is very difficult to comprehend the dynamic of their flux and evolution. One brave attempt to do that was in Boulding's effort to promote the study of the "grants economy," i.e., of the one-way transfers of funds through governments, charities, foundations, and families as a measure of the changing magnitude and character of societal benevolence.[3]
The modes of production (i.e., the societal or biological processes by which the organization or entity, following the imperatives of human knowledge or genetic structure, captures energy for the selection, transportation, transformation, and rearrangement of materials into the form of the phenotype) also evolve in the direction of greater complexity.
Power inheres in the capacity for decision, and the exercise of power implies the freedom to decide between alternatives. Hence the degree of freedom depends on the range of choice. In this sense freedom is a function of property. wealth, position, and status since these determine the size of the agenda open to decision. How great is the power that the individual can wield? If its measure is the change in the future state of the universe brought about by that decision, then the power exercised by any one of us, no matter our wealth or position, can scarcely be of much significance. The forces of biological and societal evolution, punctuated by exogenous catastrophes, move like the tides of the sea that no King Canute can command.
Perhaps the greatest power is exercised not by the decision-takers, but by those whose thoughts and words have created the symbolic structures that shape the images that prevail among mankind. The power and the evolutionary development of those symbolic structures are clearest in the instance of religion.
Religion plays an important role in the integrative system, binding the group together, sometimes perhaps in the worship of their god, too often, alas, in their hatred of those who worship another. It operates also as a system of threat (hell fire and damnation). "Religion originated, at least in part, in a fear of the unknown and an attempt to propitiate it" [Boulding 1978, 308]. It can operate as a system of exchange where the believer pays the priest for the performance of rituals "believed to be efficacious in producing what the believer wants--sons, good crops, good weather, success in war, health, or a good time after death" [Boulding 1978, 308].
A very early form the religious impulse takes is magic, which could almost be defined as an attempt to control nature by the same methods by which we try to control other people, that is by threats, gifts, sacrifices, exchanges, and persuasions . . . [arising] out of our desperate desire to do something in the face of the vast incoherence and randomness [Boulding 1978, 309-310].
And finally, in religion is expressed the perennial human demand for both consolation and celebration.
During the last 200 or 300 years, there has been an explosion of human knowledge and an expansion of the noosphere without precedent in history, matched by a consequent increase in the production of human artifacts. The rate of development has, alas, been highly uneven among the societies of the world, vastly increasing the disparity between the rich and the poor.
The chemical revolution and the advance of medical knowledge in the rich countries drastically lowered the rate of infant mortality and eliminated certain endemic diseases, thus producing a population explosion precisely in those impoverished societies that have neither the resources nor the knowledge needed to cope. The modern pace of societal evolution confronts a limit. A famine "in which perhaps over a relatively short period 100 million people will starve to death, is by no means impossible in south Asia. The potentialities for demographic disaster in tropical Africa and Latin America are perhaps a little further off than they are in south Asia, but these parts of the world are on a course that either will be changed or lead to catastrophe" [Boulding 1978, 300].
The evolutionary upsurge encounters other limits as well. The modern superculture is built upon the use of exhaustible fuels, particularly oil and gas. Now "the bottom of the barrel is no more than a lifetime away," and we have failed to find any viable alternative. We are polluting our earth with large numbers of new chemicals and radioactive substances with which the biosphere has never before had to deal. The destructive consequences may be irreversible. Nor is it clear that the problems of our increasingly complex societies fall within the competence of our existing forms of social and economic organization.
The evolutionary process is one in which existing limits have constantly been transcended because of the evolutionary process itself , . . . The classical economist saw economic development as a race between capital and population. We might broaden this to see it as a race between increasing knowledge and increasing scarcities . . . . The ultimate limit . . . is the limits to knowledge. These we obviously cannot know. For this reason the future must always remain mercifully uncertain , . . . [Boulding 1978, 304].
In any case, "the next two hundred years will certainly represent the most profound transition the human race has ever had to pass through" [Boulding 1978, 338].
Kenneth Boulding's great image of the universe in flux and evolution may be also his enduring memorial. I hope that the brief and so partial glimpse of his vision that this essay has provided will convey to the reader a sense of its breadth and quality and serve as an invitation to all to read the real thing.
Notes
1. Boulding wrote The Image at the end of a year spent at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Speaking of this, he says, "At the end of the year at the Center, when nearly everybody else had gone home, I dictated The Image, which was really an attack on behaviorism . . . It is perhaps ironic that the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (the name, incidently, was invented because it was feared that Congress would think that 'social science' would look like socialism), should have had as one of its first products my attack on behaviorism" [Boulding 1989].
2. Boulding was deeply and persistently concerned with the problems of peace and conflict resolution. In 1945 he published The Economics of Peace. In 1946-47 he co-founded the Journal of Conflict Resolution, which led to the formation of the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1962 he published Conflict and Defense: A General Theory and was a co-founder of the International Peace Research Association.
3. Boulding, working with Martin Pfaff, founded the Association for the Study of the Grants Economy. He published The Economy of Love and Fear: A Preface to Grant Economics in 1973.
References
Boulding, Kenneth E. A Reconstruction of Economics New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1950.
-----. The Economics of Peace. New York: Prentice Hall, 1945.
-----.The Image: Knowledge and Life in Society. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956.
-----. Conflict and Defense: A General Theory. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962.
-----. The Economy of Love and Fear: A Preface to the Grants Economy. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1978.
-----.Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1978.
-----. "A Bibliographical Autobiography." Banco Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review no. 171 (December 1989).
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