Kenneth Boulding: A Legacy of Ideas

Guy Burgess

February 1994

Boulding, Kenneth E., Human Betterment (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1985).Kenneth Boulding was a remarkable man. At many times during the last twenty years I have had the great privilege of working with Kenneth Boulding, first as a graduate student and then as a colleague. Kenneth's innumerable insights have contributed greatly to the thinking of scholars from virtually every discipline. While each of these individuals will tell different stories about how Kenneth's thoughts have affected their lives, this essay highlights some of the insights which I have found to be most valuable in my work in the fields of conflict resolution and peace research. Not only was he a true genius, he was something even rarer---a true renaissance man. He continually sought to understand human society and its natural environment as a single, extraordinarily complex system. He wrote of the universe in a time of specialists when such pursuits were thought to be hopelessly out-of-date. Still, he understood that the success of efforts to pursue what he called "human betterment" depended upon the accuracy of one's image of the earth as a total system. Boulding, Kenneth E., The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1973).

Citation: Boulding, Kenneth E., Ecodynamics (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1978).

In his life long commitment to human betterment, Kenneth was not the least bit afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom whenever he thought that it had gone awry and he encouraged others to do the same. In fact, he used to define a scientific discipline as an organization in which a young scholar can make his reputation by pointing out the errors in thinking of an older, more established scholar. He frequently argued that one of the greatest disasters to befall the social sciences (and, by implication, the pursuit of human betterment) was the phenomenal success of celestial mechanics. Ever since physicists discovered that a few simple equations could predict movements of the heavenly bodies with extraordinary accuracy, number-crunching social scientists have engaged in a fruitless search for a similarly elegant solution to the problem of understanding the social system. As one of the founders of general systems theory, he understood that the social system was vastly more complex and inherently unpredictable than that the systems confronted by students of celestial mechanics. He had little use for simple theories which sought to explain the world with a single big fact, such as the Marxist notion that capitalistic exploitation explains everything.

He believed that the social system was, in many ways, hopelessly complex and unpredictable. In Ecodynamics he traced some of this complexity to the processes of evolution, noting that the evolution of the solar system (at least in human time scales) had ceased, while the social system, with its rapidly advancing knowledge base, was evolving so rapidly that the basic parameters of social relationships were in constant flux. This meant that the equations which might have accurately described social behavior yesterday might not work tomorrow.

Still, he did not view the situation as hopeless. He often said that while one should be prepared to be surprised about the future, that didn't mean that one had to be dumbfounded. The complexity of the social system made the pursuit of human betterment a probabilistic activity in which the best one could hope for was a significant improvement in the odds. He based his general, long-term optimism on the ability of humans to develop ever more accurate images of the courses of action which are more likely to result in success and those which are more likely to result in failure. This caused him to continually call for the development of new research methods and theoretical approaches tailored to the evolutionary complexity of the social system.

He made a crucial distinction between the three basic approaches through which humans have sought to understand the complex world in which they live. First, there is folk knowledge derived from the limited information base of personal experience. Next, there is literary knowledge which extends the information base to include written anecdotal information about the experiences of others which are communicated across space and time. Finally, there is scientific knowledge which extends the written information base with the rules of systematic observation and analysis. While he believed that scientific knowledge was responsible for much of the progress of the modern world, he was also disturbed by the fact that it plays such a small role in social policy decisions and, especially, those involving war and peace.

Boulding also played an important role in popularizing the distinction between the anachronistic cowboy earth with limitless resources and the emerging spaceship earth in which continuing prosperity depends upon of a sophisticated understanding and management of the global ecosystem. Still, he was often critical of the environmental movement and, especially, its practice of conceptualizing the non-human environment as distinct and somehow more virtuous than the human society. Rather than seeing humans as a cancer growing upon the planet, Boulding saw a evolutionary system which humans had set off on a whole new track with their capacity for learned knowledge, what he calls "noogenetics." As a major step beyond the instinct-driven knowledge of "biogenetics," Boulding recognized that noogenetics would inevitably change the face of the planet. His goal was to help guide evolution in ways which would produce a better world. In this he recognized that betterment was a complex and multidimensional concept fraught with conflict and irony where actions often have unintended and surprising consequences.

One of Boulding's greatest contributions was his image of the three great systems--threats, exchanges, and love--which shape human behavior. Threats are social interactions based upon the statement--"you do something I want or I'll do something you don't want." Exchanges are interactions of a form, "you do something I want, and I'll do something you want." Love, which Kenneth also referred to as the integrative system, takes the form, "I'll do something for you because I want to, not because I expect anything in return or feel threatened." This is very close to the crucial idea that James Wilson has further developed in his recent book, The Moral Sense Wilson, James Q., The Moral Sense (New York: The Free Press, 1993). The analysis to these three systems, which are outlined in the Economy of Love and Fear Boulding, Kenneth E., The Economy of Love and Fear (Belmont, Calif.: Watdsworth Publishing Co., 1973), and then developed in detail in the Three Faces of Power, Boulding, Kenneth E.,Three Faces of Power (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1989), permeate much of Kenneth's writings.

Economists and exchange theorists tend to think that exchange dominates social interactions. They interpret social behavior as a set quid pro quos. There are others who believe that the threat system predominates social relations. This view posits that domination, submission, and exploitation lie at the core of a world in which everyone is either a victim or a tyrant. While obviously important, both of these visions neglect the enormous role of the integrative system. He contends, and I think quite rightly, that most human activity is motivated by a sense of obligation and affection for one another. This largely-neglected system must play a critical role in efforts to advance the cause of human betterment and limit the inequities of the exchange system and, above all, the destructiveness and war associated with the threat system.

For Boulding, efforts to make and keep the peace depend, first of all, on an understanding of threats. It is commonly believed that, if a threat is sufficiently onerous, it will lead to submission. This underlies the widespread belief that threats are really the way to get things done. The truth is that threats often have unintended and undesirable consequences. In the first place, nobody likes to be forced to do what they don't want to do. While the result may be short term submission, one can also expect resentment, hostility, and clever and covert strategies which avoid the need to submit to the threat. Another possible response, which is occasionally available, is flight, where the recipient of the threat simply leaves, depriving the threatener of the benefits of submissive behavior.

More dangerous responses include counterthreat--a response which produces an escalating cycle of threats and counterthreats accompanied by a race to acquire the arms needed to make the threats credible. At some point, this leads to defiance, where the target of the threats simply refuses to submit, daring his opponent to carry out the threat. The threatener must then either carry out the threat or admit that it was a bluff. In such a case, his ability to force others to submit with future threats would drop off dramatically. Carrying out the threat, however, is usually very expensive, in terms of both lives and money, and the costs can easily outweigh the benefits.

Kenneth was particularly worried about the belief that the long term key to peace was the system of continuing threat and counterthreat called deterrence. One problem with deterrence is that counterthreats tend to escalate sharply as both sides desperately try to reduce their vulnerability. This, especially in the age of high technology weapons, tends to produce continuing changes in the balance of power, not to mention ever more destructive weapons.

For Kenneth this presented the real threat of Murphy's Law. While most view this principle--"if anything can go wrong, it will"--as a joke, Kenneth added one word, "if anything can go wrong, it eventuallywill," and transformed it into scientific fact. Long-term maintenance of an international system based upon threat and counterthreat is certain to eventually break down as some unlikely combination of events transforms deterrence into war, as it did, for example, at the outbreak of World War I.

At that point, escalating threats break over into an escalating cycle of action and reaction which quickly leads to the extreme intensification of the conflict with both sides devoting all available resources in an attempt to prevail. This leads to another transformation in which the original substantive issues, which gave rise to the initial conflict and threat, become completely lost in a climate of vengeance and self-defense. It is very hard to talk about principles when people are shooting at you. Boulding also observed that a taboo shift accompanies this process, where atrocities that were previously unthinkable become commonplace and accepted.

Boulding also took issue with the belief that escalation processes are rational and subject to human control. He believed that escalating threats and violence are a true slippery slope--an abyss which is easy to slide into and extraordinarily difficult to climb out of. Even though people may believe that they are in control of the situation, they are usually entrapped by a rush of events over which they exert very little influence.

Boulding's concept of stable peace represents his image of how the cycle of threat, counter-threat, and war can be broken. He often explained the concept with an analogy--the history of dueling. According to Boulding, dueling in the days of swords, was a relatively benign way to settle disputes. Winners and losers were clearly established and, usually, no one was killed. One party was simply disarmed and had to admit defeat. The advent of accurate hand guns, however, changed all that. Then when the disputants walked ten paces, turned, and fired, they were both killed. As soon as people caught on to this new state of affairs, interest in dueling dropped dramatically to the point where, if you challenged somebody to a duel, they'd simply laugh and say that, "We don't do that anymore!"

Boulding saw a similar transformation away from the military resolution of international and civil conflicts, which he called stable peace. He defined stable peace as a relationship between nations (or other social groups) in which the possibility of violent confrontation and war is so remote that it doesn't enter into anyone's calculations. He had a simple objective test for determining whether or not stable peace exists between the United States and another country--Canada, for example. Simply try to imagine a hypothetical request to the Pentagon for the war plans to invade Canada. If the Pentagon can be expected to respond with a laugh and a statement that there is not such thing, then you know that stable peace exists.

According to Boulding the region of stable peace first appeared in Scandinavia and then spread, in mid-1800's, to North America (between Canada and the United States). He then observed the expansion of a region of stable peace which, before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, extended across Western Europe through North America to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Among these countries, the possibility of armed confrontation was extraordinarily remote. While he acknowledges that some of the stability of this region was attributable to the common need to confront the Soviet Union, he believed it was much more than that. Today, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the challenge is to permanently expand the region of stable peace to include our former enemies in the east while resisting the forces which might divide the west in the absence of a common enemy. What is striking is that stable peace exists between nations with conflicting languages and cultures as well as those engaged in intense competition and a general struggle for international dominance.

Boulding envisioned a continuum running from stable peace, on the one hand, to stable war on the other, with unstable peace and unstable war in between. Unstable peace is the armed peace of deterrence in which competing sides are prepared for military action, often on a moment's notice. While it may work as a short-term transition toward stable peace, Murphy's law makes it a long-term formula for disaster. At the other extreme, stable war characterizes a situation in which war is viewed as a permanent and unavoidable condition with corresponding shifts in the taboo line toward continuing atrocities, and the virtual absence of non-military structures for resolving disputes. Usually this occurs in situations in which a relatively equal distribution of power makes a near term military resolution of the conflict unlikely. Unstable war, such as we witnessed in the Middle East for the last 40 years, offers more hope. Here, periods of war are interspersed with periods of peace with at least rudimentary peace-making, peace-building, and peace-keeping institutions. He never saw stable peace as an end to conflict and confrontation, but rather, a more enlightened setting in which conflicts can be played out.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of stable peace is that it does not require any sort of world government or abandonment of national sovereignty. All that is required is that people recognize the basic fact that military confrontations are, almost without exception, a poor way of resolving conflicts in which the costs far outweigh any benefits which might be obtained. He didn't see stable peace as a quick fix, but rather part of a long-term, evolutionary process in which the probabilities of war slowly decrease as society increasingly recognizes its waste and futility. Stable peace is also closely associated with prosperity. He was fond of observing that empires and conquests don't pay while stable peace does. As an example he points out that the Scandinavian countries became successful and prosperous in spite of the fact that they never really had an empire. He also cites studies showing that the British actually lost money on their empire.

Boulding was also particularly concerned about the fact that the history of peace has never really been written. Throughout history, peace has, almost universally, has been viewed as a non-event and, therefore, not worthy of study or teaching. For example he proposed, quite seriously, a national holiday to celebrate the Rush-Baghot agreement which demilitarized the Great Lakes and initiated a period of stable peace between the United States and Canada. In the mid 1800's the rallying cry was 54 40' or fight. We didn't get 50 40' and we didn't fight. Instead we got stable peace. Why? For him, this was as important a question as understanding how World War II was fought. Of similar importance is an improved understanding of the history countless other trouble spots did not erupt into war.

Development of the integrative system is also viewed by many as a non-event, even though, for Boulding, it explains a great deal of human behavior. Part of the reason may be that the integrative system is sufficiently commonplace to be uninteresting. Our attention is captured by news stories focused upon the threat system with its spectacular (and relatively rare) instances of violence and bitter confrontation. If its not threats we seem focus on potential exchanges with their seemingly endless flow of schemes for making money. It is the integrative system which determines the group identities, which in turn, determine the parties to conflict.

Boulding has suggested two interesting indicators--benevolence and malevolence. Malevolence is simply defined as the amount of money you'd spend to do a dollar's worth of harm to another. Benevolence, conversely, is defined as the amount you'd spend to do a dollar's worth of good. It is the integrative system which determines intergroup levels of malevolence and benevolence. The key unanswered question, obviously, is how can we turn malevolence into benevolence?

Boulding not only very much appreciated the diversity of the natural world, but also the diversity of the social world. While he delighted in different values and traditions, he was under no illusion that they all contribute equally to the success of society and its overall quality of life. He was, for example, interested in why two countries with similar backgrounds--Australia and Argentina--developed in such radically different ways.

A lifelong fan of Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations, Boulding recognized the crucial role played by the "invisible hand." He also recognized that this wasn't the whole story. There is also an "invisible fist" consisting of the perverse dynamics of market interactions which have to be controlled if capitalism is to benefit average citizens. For example, one key element of the invisible fist was what Boulding called Matthew's Law--from the Biblical Book of Matthew, "From whomsoever hath, to him shall be given." This, "he who has, gets" mechanism tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few "robber barons." One explanation of the current crisis in the former Soviet Union is that, in their pursuit of the benefits of capitalism, they have neglected the importance of controlling the invisible fist.

Finally, Boulding understood the importance of preaching to more than the choir. His goal was always to persuade (not force) skeptics to adopt wiser and more sophisticated images of the world. As a true generalist, Kenneth was never able to develop his ideas and their implications in full detail (though he did amazingly well). The challenge now is for interdisciplinary teams to nurture the intellectual seeds that he planted by more fully developing his ideas. He "often compared the peace movement to the labors of Sisyphus--we push the stone uphill and continually it rolls down again and we have to start all over again. But the hill in not infinite and it has a watershed, and one day the stone will roll over the watershed and we will be chasing it instead of pushing it." Boulding, Kenneth E., Stable Peace (Austin: University of Texas, 1978 p. 66).