Kenneth Ewart Boulding

Part VII – Kenneth Ewart Boulding

WITHIN the economics profession, Boulding is regarded as something of a heretic, though a basically harmless one. As a person he is regarded warmly by his fellow economists; hats are tipped to him as one trying to expand and ennoble the profession. But as an economist per se, in terms of the con­temporary criteria of the economics profession, he is taken less than entirely seriously. Such condescension is unlikely to last. His early work on price theory and the theory of the firm is too good to remain neglected forever. His stress on ethical values and his work on the theory of organization, general systems, and the nature of conflict have indeed enriched economics. His work on grants economics—not the happiest name for what he is talking about—has opened up a fertile new field for an age in which the role of the market appears to be shrinking.

Though Boulding has worked most of his life on the bor­derline of economics, the price he has paid for his seeming dilettantism has not been great. He has had as successful an academic career as anyone might wish, doing the work he wanted to do, publishing whatever issued from his volumi­nous pen, serving as president of his discipline's most presti­gious organization. Referring to his pacifist activities, Bould­ing has said that there were times when he made decisions of principle, "but I am sure I'm not going to get much of a reward in heaven, because really—every time I've made a noble sacrifice, I've always gotten a better job." His whole life is, in fact, an inspiring story of heresy tolerated, creativity appreciated, and virtue rewarded.

By accepting the guidance of his religion, Boulding has in fact focused his work as an economist on what is doubtless the most crucial unsolved problem of our time—war, man­kind's historic pseudo-cure for economic and social ills. In­evitably, in the midst of ecological threats, contests for access to the world's limited resources, rampant inflation, growing unemployment, famine in the poor lands, and a threatened breakdown in the world monetary system, fears of war are again on the rise. "Is it not tragic," asks Mubashir Hasan, the Pakistani finance minister, "that it is mainly when nations have plunged themselves into wars that there has been a sud­den spurt of creative activity on the production front? Men and women have toiled day and night, instead of working five days a week, and achieved technological breakthroughs which have tremendously boosted production and helped usher in new eras of productivity later on."61 Is Boulding's "bathtub" about to be drained once more?

And is this mankind's ghastly little secret—that we really need war to provide the spur for creative activity and social cohesion, to inspire and develop all that is "best" in us? Other scholars—and not just Karl Marx—have long thought so. For instance, Everett E. Hagen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his studies of Japan, concluded that mili­tary threats to a nation may be a powerful force toward economic growth, if combined with internal forces pushing toward technological development. This is no new idea. The ancients put great stress on the threats of enemies in develop­ing the genius of a nation. The tragic irony is still with us. The most dramatically successful of all research undertakings in this century was the Manhattan Project, which enlisted and coordinated the talents of many brilliant scientists in the American effort to develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis did. On the other hand, the great wartime innovations owed their origin to major scientific progress in physics, chemistry, engineering, the earth sciences, the biological sciences, and mathematics which predated the war by decades.62 The Ein-steins, Lawrences, Fermis, and von Neumanns did not need war to inspire their search for knowledge.

Nevertheless, it is true that nations were energized by World War II, and fruitful human activity followed it. Inter­national organizations were created to expand trade, to main­tain employment and real income, to correct maladjustments in the balance of payments, to reconstruct and develop econ­omies on a more equitable and just basis. The war opened up an era of growth; but now the postwar era appears to have exhausted itself and is subtly, horribly, being converted into what feels like a prewar era. Is mankind preparing itself again for one of its dark nights of creation?
In the nuclear age—God forbid.

As the Pakistani minister put it, the question before the world today is whether the destruction and bloodshed that a global conflict involves is really a pre­requisite to a spurt in productive activity by nations and to a restructuring of the international economic order on a just basis. Must the nations first make the terrible sacrifice of human life and property before they bring themselves to tak­ing those hard decisions which alone would save mankind from starvation and death?

But this time the world cannot go through its historic blood rites of spring as a prelude to a new era of growth. The dangers to humankind and the ecosystem are too great. The nations must instead settle down to the hard work of finding a way to share the earth's limited resources equitably, to dis­tribute income and capital and knowledge more fairly. This is not simply a contest between the rich nations and the poor, as the oversimplified rhetoric of the earlier postwar period had it, and still has it. Rather, the time has come to recognize that there can be injustice not only between rich and poor but between oil-rich and oil-poor, between those with ample food and those with none, and that such injustice exists within states and not just between states. Many of the poor states neglect their own poor most cruelly.

Kenneth Boulding has sought to teach us that we must learn to live together on the earth. He links the scientific and technological present to a sweeter and simpler, more humane and more divine past. But we are held down by our human past, by our mean antagonisms, by the rigidity of our habits and the faintness of our hopes.
In the Medieval miracle play "The Creation of Adam and Eve," God says:

In earth are trees and grass to spring; Beasts and fowls both great and small, Fishes in flood, all other thing, Thrive and have my blessing, all.
This work is wrought now at my will, But yet can I here no beast see That accords by kindly skill, And for my work might worship me.

For -perfect work ne were there none But aught were made that might it yeme; For lof made I this world alone, Therefore my lof shall in it seem.

The last verse means, "For there would be no perfect work unless something were made that could have charge of it; for love alone I made this world, therefore my love shall be man­ifest in it."

Wildly, daringly, perhaps madly but most kindly, Bould­ing has given us the economics of the perfectibility of man and of God's earthly kingdom.