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A Tribal Games
September 2012


When anthropologists first wrote about the institution of potlatch, they caused astonishment, even bemusement. Potlatch was a bizarre form of social interaction in a number of primitive communities around the Pacific, which continued into the early 20th century. Perhaps the best example was provided by the Indian tribes on the American north-west coast. According to Ruth Benedict, in her 1934 classic Patterns of Culture, much interesting detail had been recorded about "the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island". 

In her words, their motivations "centred around the will to superiority". Superiority could be established most notably by the accumulation of "nobility titles". Individuals could pass on such titles — acquired by marriage, during initiation rites and so on — down the generations, so that some especially great families had titles that went back to "the origin of the world". The purpose of accumulating nobility titles was "to shame rivals". Like other peoples, the Kwakiutl wanted to win, even if their definition of winning might seem — at first glance — a little peculiar to us.

Even odder, again at first glance, was the Kwakiutl stratagem for maintaining superiority at the potlatch ceremonies. Top-ranking individuals, were expected to demonstrate their superiority by what Benedict described as "conspicuous waste". Either they gave away goods to others on an enormous scale or they engaged in wanton destruction. The more generous the donation of gifts, and the more extensive and uninhibited the destruction, the more a member of the Kwakiutl tribe demonstrated his superiority. Someone stripped of his wealth acquired unparalleled prestige.

As potlatch is difficult to reconcile with the copybook maxims of neoclassical economics, why am I mentioning it in this column? The answer is that London has recently hosted the 2012 Olympics at phenomenal expense. The whole shebang cost over £11 billion, with the vast bulk of that, about £9 billion, coming from government. No immediate cash return is expected from that £9 billion. It is unlikely that the new stadiums and other facilities will again be used as intensively as in August 2012. 

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