Kennet Ewart Boulding Biography

Kennet Ewart Boulding Biography Summary

Kenneth Ewart Boulding might well have become a preacher instead of an economist; in fact, he is both. He was born in Liverpool, England, on January 18, 1910, the only child of William Boulding, a gas fitter, and Elizabeth Rowe, the daughter of a blacksmith who was also a lay preacher in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Both of Boulding's parents were deeply religious. They had met at a Wesleyan chapel in London, and when they moved to Liverpool the nonconformist church remained a central part of their lives. His father also became a lay preacher and served for many years as superintendent of the local Wesleyan Sunday School. Wil­liam Boulding was, however, a poor businessman, and from the beginning of World War I the family became increasingly hard-pressed financially.

Kenneth was a precocious child, but his precocity was at first hidden under a severe stutter. Though able to read at the age of three, he was considered retarded because of his speech defect by the headmaster of the first school he at­tended. When he was nine years old, he transferred from the Anglican St. Simons to the Unitarian Hope Street School. By then his stutter—which he was never entirely to lose—had improved, and his talents were quickly recognized. Three years later he won a scholarship to the prominent Liverpool Collegiate School.

While still in primary school, Boulding had begun keeping diaries and writing poems; in this he was encouraged by his mother, who had literary interests of her own. He read voraciously. Alice in Wonderland and The Swiss Family Robinson were eajly favorites of his. He later became ab­sorbed in the works of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. At first he followed his parents' religion. During his ado­lescence he spent several summers at a Methodist summer camp, which he found both spiritually and intellectually in­spiring. This led him formally to enroll as a member of the Brunswick Methodist Church in 1926. But he then began to sense a lack of immediacy in the religion of his fellow Meth­odists.

Reading an account of conscientious objection during World War I, Boulding became interested in Quakerism. He sought out members of the local Quaker community and, without leaving the Methodist church, started to attend the Liverpool Friends Meeting. Initially drawn to the Quaker religion by his deep abhorrence of war, he soon found equal appeal in its form of worship and system of belief. The silent meetings, unencumbered by preachers' exhortations and ad­monitions, gave the young Boulding both the unmediated contact with the divine and the profound sense of community with other worshipers that he desired. As the Quaker thinker Howard Brinton has written,

the mysticism of the Quakers is directed both toward God and toward the group. The vertical relation to God and the hori­zontal relation to man are like two co-ordinates used to plot a curve; without both the position of the curve could not be determined.

Boulding also found support for his underlying optimism in the Quaker denial of predestination and its assertion of the perfectibility of man.

At Liverpool Collegiate, Boulding concentrated in mathe­matics and the natural sciences, excelling in chemistry. Hav­ing failed in 1927 to gain a scholarship to Cambridge, he won an Open Major Scholarship in the Natural Sciences at New College, Oxford, in 1928. But Oxford was not the Eden which Boulding had imagined. He felt excluded from the life of his college because of his social and educational back­ground; he was hurt and angered by class discrimination. He felt less in common with the Quakers at Oxford, who tended to come from upper-middle-class homes and private boarding schools, than with the Methodists, who were generally schol­arship students like himself. With these Methodists he joined in missions of evangelism and social service to working-class communities in the area.

Boulding's poetic muse also suffered at Oxford. He failed to win the much-coveted Newdigate Prize for poetry, which he had been determined to secure. And finally, in his first year, Boulding grew increasingly unhappy with the study of chemistry. By the end of the spring he had decided to switch to the study of the "modern greats" in the honor school of politics, philosophy, and economics. Despite the change, New College allowed him to keep his chemistry scholarship.

Thus, in June 1929, at the age of nineteen and a half, Kenneth Boulding confronted economics for the first time. He went to Lionel Robbins, then about to leave New College for a, professorship at the London School of Economics, and asked for a reading list. Boulding later recalled their meeting:

.. Lionel Robbins very probably has no recollection of this inci­dent, but I have a very clear recollection of him sitting in the window seat in his room in the garden quad, illuminated by the watery Oxford sun, and this shy, gauche, undergraduate from Liverpool asking him what he should read in the summer in economics. I had never even heard of economics before and had not the slightest idea what it was all about. I got out a pencil and paper and Robbins drawled cheerfully, "Well, you might read Marshall, Principles of Economics, Pigou, The Economics of Welfare, Cassell, Theory of Social Economy, and Hawtrey, The Economic Problem." I wrote these books down, never having heard of them, went to the library and got them out. They seemed rather large, but I had a whole sum­mer to read then) in, so I went back to Liverpool and read them. I came back to Oxford the next October to find Henry Phelps-Brown installed as the economics tutor. He promptly proceeded to give me a little examination, which in those days was called a collection, in which I scored an alpha, the Oxford for an A. Obviously economics was something that I could do, and I have continued to do it on and off ever since.

His spirits renewed, Boulding waded happily into the new field. His efforts were well rewarded. In 1930 he won the Webb-Medley Junior Scholarship in Economics, and the next year he was one of ten students to graduate with first-class honors in modern greats; he gained the best "first" in eco­nomics. A succinct paper he had written on displacement costs was accepted by John Maynard Keynes for publication in the Economic journal. This very first paper, brief as it was, illustrates the lucidity and freshness of Boulding's mind. The concept of displacement cost—the notion that the cost of acquiring or producing any good was equal to the cost of not using the same resources to acquire or produce some other good—was sliding too easily and carelessly into mathemati­cal economics, Boulding pointed out. The concept held with exactitude only in particular "displacement systems" in which the total quantity of resources were fixed and homogeneous, and in which definite quantities of only two products were produced by definite quantities of resources. But these were not the conditions of the real world. Productive resources— the "philosopher's stone of muddled economists," said Boulding—were not homogeneous:
We cannot add a unit of labor, a unit of capital (whatever that may be), and a unit of land, with perhaps a little entrepre­neurial ability thrown in as seasoning, and expect a fine pud­ding composed of homogeneous "units of productive re­sources."

In any case, the simple logic of displacement costs would hold only for a point in time; it would break down over a longer period of time, since resources are really not fixed in quan­tity. Hence, the analysis of economic processes could not be built on the crude model of a fixed cake, in which "the bigger the slice which Johnny gets the less there is for Susie and Jimmie. .. ."

Kenneth Boulding had found his profession.