The Joust and The Potlatch as Social Alternatives

March 11, 2021

Originally written Spring 2004; revised March 2021

Abstract: The Joust and The Potlatch as Social Alternatives

This paper examines two opposing organizational cultures: The Joust (competition) and The Potlatch (based on gifts and cooperation). The economic cases for The Joust and The Pot­latch are made, then the perceptions of each by the other are sketched with ensuing rebuttals by both.

The Joust, founded on substitution and economic conflict of interest, stresses material gain. The Potlatch thrives on nonphysical values, seeking complementarities in learning and social designs.

Jousters see The Potlatch as a system lacking incentives, without ambition or technical progress. Potlatchers view The Joust with frustration; selfish acquisitive values make cooperation impossible, as shortsightedness squanders scarce resources and threatens stability.


Teaser photo credit: By Paulus Hector Mair – De arte athletica II [1], Public Domain

  1. The Joust from a Jouster’s Perspective

“How any rational person could oppose The Joust as a socially optimal organizational form is beyond me! Look at our rates of growth, the progress we’ve made over the years, and how much all our lives have improved. The motivational impact of a competitive frame moves mountains; it fosters a natural human desire to win and thereby achieve. We would still live in the Stone Age if we didn’t have vital incentives such as our rivalries support!”

The case for The Joust is founded upon a view of human affairs based on substitution and tradeoffs as the essence of value relations. Whatever you have or receive, from this perspective, is thereby denied to me: each of us strives for more, in a widening circle of growing production affording greater returns to all. The mutual boon of free exchange allows specialization and trade, and therewith a rising efficiency in production achieved through acquisition.

The open expansion of output driven by a Jouster mentality lifts the lives of all: competition ties prices to cost while lowering both. Thus Smith’s invisible hand turns personal gain into public good, as benefits spread from producers to consumers through competition: profits squeezed to ‘normal’ levels spill their fruits upon all.

Competition encourages striving to be the best that we can. Those who play the game only win by offering gains to others more adroitly than do their rivals. So able providers rise to the top, while lazy, incompetent people languish. This is the way it should be: those who contribute more to well-being garner a larger reward. The Joust accomplishes that.

The virtuous economics of the Joust are well established: firms jockey each other for a better position in the market, with those serving consumers more effectively earning the most. They get the highest profits in a competitive fight for supremacy at satisfying wants: selfishness spawns service. Sure, rules are required to support this mira­culous system: property rights – protected (and expanded to every activity) – yield assurance that private profit will lead to social advantage through growth. The whole system is set up to work in an optimal way.

A perfect balance is thereby achieved. Temporary private gains are redirected to the public in a process of competition, so everyone is better off. All are encouraged to work and produce specialized goods for generalized needs; the optimal allocation of means to ends sorts out the rest. Thus social incentives smoothly align with private advantage. The econo­mics have long been shown: The Joust serves everyone’s needs.

Competition not only excels in the realm of physical output, however, but also in the world of ideas: academics strive for recognition and other rewards while learning new things and sharing their fruits. Here remarkable insights emerge, displacing outmoded views: rivalrous science works! See how knowledge has grown during the last hundred years. How anyone could deny The Joust has served us well, except in jealousy over colleagues’ achievements, staggers the rational mind. The Joust has no rival in its success.

In general, Jousters show an enthusiasm for their way of life. Even those shut out by others deem these outcomes fair. Jousters are aggressive, focused on winners, with losers often ignored. Most Jousters strive for improvement in their material lives, save for a residue of lost souls subsisting on discards and scraps. Jousters share but reluctantly in their labors’ fruits: ‘social safety nets’ are not a high priority here. Each looks out for himself; falling by the way­side in this set­ting is scorned by most. In The Joust, it is everyone for themselves.


Watercolor by James G. Swan depicting the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka at Port Townsend, with one of Chetzemoka’s wives distributing potlatch. Public Domain

  1. The Potlatch from a Potlatcher’s Vantage

“These Jousters just don’t get it! One wonders if their insistent denial of failures in their own system is a result of Joust mentality: each is so bent on self-promotion that all are blind to flaws. Their economic assumptions are radically wrong, but Jousters lack socio-cultural self-awareness. Caught in a trap of their own design, they push away any understanding of their real situation. But that is the way of The Joust. It forces people to blow their own horns, deafened to everything else! The Potlatch is inclusive in its embrace, inviting all to participate in a circle of friends, just as social systems should. The Potlatch works so well, at least if properly understood, that it is far superior to the Joust!”

The Potlatch is founded on gifts, freely offered in general acceptance that “what goes around, will come around” in time as events evolve. A tribal sense of community is the driving force of a Potlatch society, in which the fortunes of all are conjoined through honor and social esteem. Every asset is shared, and the people look out for each other; each individual strength is supported as a part of the whole. Conflicts are resolved by councils of elders with parties in dispute, via settlements sought through consensus. All strive for peaceful solutions in open deliberations set to benefit those concerned.

The Potlatch emerges from an alternative view of human affairs. Instead of placing conflict at the center of value relations, The Potlatch is concerned with the complementarities of interaction. Here the focus is less on physical output and acquisition, and more on non-material likes and dislikes, socio-cultural issues, and the organization of effort. The Potlatchers see maturity in generosity, kindness, sensitivity, humor, respect and truth; they also honor their elders for the wisdom they have achieved.

The ecological interdependence of all life is seen as the starting-point to any economic analysis of Potlatch society. Thus are narrow (Jouster) representations of substitution and tradeoffs opened to wider realms of positive feedback in dynamic complex systems of endless interreaction. The ecological outlook in the Potlatch is thus broadly considered, where every act initiates endless series of impacts spreading outward forever in social and physical space.

So here an ethic of conscience survives. If you disrupt a fellow citizen, everyone is affected: “do no harm” is the moral standard that directs social choice. And the meaning of “harm” is open: any action disturbing the fabric of life in any regard is subject to challenge under this rule. Potlatchers show reverence for the life-supporting gifts of ecology, in which every organism is part of an all-encompassing web. Potlatchers’ acts are seen in a larger realm of vitality than in The Joust: such is the basic cultural lineage of a Potlatch society.

As one might think, the social awareness of Potlatchers is strong, along with their educational emphasis. Indeed, Potlatchers speak a lot about organizational learning cultures and how best to promote them. Much is made of cooperation as a means to share resources, build trust and tighten feedback loops among cause and effect. All learning and knowledge is pursued together in groups, and the results socially owned: there is no exclusive possession of intangible assets. Uni­versity education is not defined into rigid disciplines; students study their own questions, shaped by tutors and peers. The whole educational process entails an ongoing collaboration interspersed with research papers shared with all in open discussion.

In general, Potlatchers tend to be open, aware and tuned to each other, responding to need with genuine interest in their fellows’ well-being. It is almost as if they share a psychic connection to one another, realizing that – if anyone suffers – they will all feel pain. This social linkage almost defines their realm and way of life: how goods are shared is more important than their growth or amount. The Potlatchers’ bonds are tight; they tend to be openly easy with each other and laugh a lot in their meetings. Potlatchers are remarkably secure in their social relations.

  1. The Potlatch from a Jouster’s Perspective

“The Potlatch is a good example of a stagnant society. Economic growth is slow, without drive or motive force. Such arises from weak incentives: why would anyone work, with returns shared by all? Self-improvement, channeled by market choice, serves us so well! Competitive forces show where resources should go, directing them more efficiently than overt control. Socialist central planning – or whatever you wish to call it – doesn’t work and never has. The flexibility of freedom beats any other social arrangement: there, beyond the chaos of change, lie realms still undiscovered!”

The Potlatch fails on every issue: the rate of growth in production is slow, wages and purchas­ing power have lagged, and undeveloped assets abound that Jousters would turn into goods. Potlatchers stress ‘social’ concerns since they have so little else! The freedom to act – to realize dreams or even just do well – languishes. Every choice is subject to others’ approval in a conformist domain. There is no room to follow one’s own ambitions and take a new path.

The Joust is dynamic, constantly moving and challenges all to a higher potential. The Potlatch is sluggish, resistant to change, and nurtures slothful laxity. The purpose of life is to grow, to explore, to reach beyond one’s grasp: people living in Pot­latch societies have no idea what they miss! All the excitement of vaulting to the top is key to the sense of productive value that Jousters seek. Indeed, Jousters cannot imagine being stuck in a Pot­latch; life would be so boring!

Cooperation has slower growth, higher prices and fewer goods; wants are not to be overcome, but docilely accepted, with a level of poverty easily quelled by more efficient incentives. Collusion’s flaws seem obvious: substitute tradeoffs are better resolved through rivalrous acquisition. There is no way a Potlatch society ever could equal The Joust: the creation of value will languish and communal decisions squander resources, time and precious attention. No Jouster would tolerate this seemingly endless stagnation. We are much more decisive!

Slackers swarm to The Potlatch, however, relieved from meaningful lives by a burdensome program of aid. This is a misdirection of value away from productive worth. Artists and other cultural leeches are recompensed as ‘public goods,’ so free choice fails in this realm. Markets are representative and democratic in their results: only elitists spurn this system for autocratic control over public consumption and personal taste. This snobbery is repugnant to Jousters: let freedom ring!

Although The Joust appears chaotic, decentralized systems seem that way yet are rigidly held by market forces on an optimal path. This structure is open-ended, allowing growth and development through individual choice subject to minimal limits. Socialism – Potlatch style – is stultifying and static, crushing everyone into a group. Privacy and freedom of choice cede to a uniform march. The essence of life is striving for gain! A sense of challenge has been lost and forsaken in The Potlatch community, yet is still active in The Joust. That is the key to survival in a turbulent, uncertain time much like that we live in today.

  1. The Joust from a Potlatcher’s Vantage

“The Joust teaches aggression, opportunism and predation. Everyone seeks advantage, but no one knows its cost. The Joust turns us against each other, and centers us on ourselves. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is the very first question Jousters ask. Concern for others cedes to callous accumulation of wealth, which is secured behind protective fences, safe from any intrusion. The economic case for The Joust is rife with many illusions, stubbornly held as true. Any objective vantage would dispel these sundry errors. But Jousters stress sales, not science: they don’t care to see other sides of an argument they have resolved. They’ve no patience with that!”

A shameless standard of personal gain has arrested Joust development: the culture revels in infantile, egocentric concerns. Social, ethical, organizational and ecological losses are ignored in favor of acquisition: nothing competes with the endless struggle for more and better possessions. Some believe frustration of higher needs spawns such narcissism; other Potlatchers say The Joust is making us stupid and immature: learning, communication and trust thrive from meaningful lives safely insulated from market demands. Sales activity undermines social relations: everyone has an agenda, with no room left for love.

Value is subjective; people live inside their own heads, awash in joy and despair, in need of friends and tenderness from each other. The Joust diverts such yearnings into addiction to physical goods, at the expense of fundamental human needs too often denied. This is why a Jouster cannot absorb Potlatch ways, since the culture embodies, at least symbolically, all their repressed desires. Jousters cannot afford to examine the world they have lost to rivalry: it might distract them from money-making as an acquisitive vice. Sales supersede truth in Jouster research and knowledge of facts; seldom is any objectivity offered in news and discussion. The Joust stands on a quest for gain: “Our business is business,” Jousters say.

Jousters seem inured to ethical license and ecological loss; they covet Potlatcher resources, while they exhaust their own. The threat is real and growing: cooperation cannot thrive in the face of aggressive predation; everyone needs to join together for a Potlatch to work. Otherwise, myopic concerns will trump prudence every time, as short-term benefits show in bolder relief than lasting costs. So have forests fallen to loggers; so have fisheries spent their riches; so were other assets squandered, depleting future reserves. The Jouster race for wealth cannot quell an insatiable lust: the urge to consume will not be deterred by any ethical limit to what is proper, rightful, legal or fair. The Jousters seek to win over The Potlatch however they can.

The Jousters’ economic case is seductive, fatally flawed and doomed, distracting in its circumlocutions. Substitution is not the essential social linkage that Jousters believe, and most production technology is not curbed by rising cost. People live in their heads: subjective values are far more important to well-being than things. Such intangibles show a different abundance than material goods. Any example – love, learning, trust – describes the issue well. Love is spread through gifts, so the way to get more is to give it away! Information is similar in its economic concerns: all learning ought to be pooled. Trust – a public good – is slow to build but easily lost: any opportunism breaks it. This is the way of complementarities: sharing creates new output, and rivalries shrink it back. Cooperation advances concerts of value, like competition brings strife. The question turns to one about the nature of human relations.

Substitution is the mantra of all Jouster economists; scarcity and tradeoffs stand at the center of their research. Indeed, they define economics so, as if physical output under rising cost were all! Their whole lattice of claims stands on little more than assertion. First, the essence of value is subjective; feelings are unconstrained: human welfare rises from more than just tangible things. Social patterns show reinforcing currents of feedback (complementarity) are more important than equilibrium balance (substitution).

Next, most produc­tion occurs under increasing returns, making complementarities supersede trade­offs even for physical output. This suggests that market power has more clout than Jousters admit. Third, the role of planning horizons has been neglected too, as an index of foresight, conscience, socialization and personal growth. The inter­personal interaction of planning horizons is complementary: any extension or retraction thereof is socially spread. These ‘horizon effects’ mimic complementarity here, making cooperation our route to efficiency and not competition. The Joust fails in a world of horizonal learning and nonmaterial want; a scar­city among complements stems from Jouster ways: competition reduces output in these situations.  Such positive feedbacks, supported in Potlatch society, are resisted in Jouster realms.

  1. The Jouster Response to Potlatch Claims

“How rational people could ever assert that tradeoffs are not essential is simply incomprehensible: look around and open your eyes! Such a claim would deny the fact of choice, so basic to economics. Scarcity is everywhere! Wanting to believe in something cannot make it true. We don’t produce by giving away or sharing what we get. That is our ruin, not our redemption. No irrational fantasy is a basis for social design. Pot­latchers seem blinded by all their reformist delusions!”

The only issue on which we have no choice is the hard fact of choice itself. Tradeoffs exist through all we encounter; that is what scarcity means! We either do this or that. The whole study of economics entails such matters of choice. Scarcity is so inherent to life, one cannot imagine dismissing it. The world imposes some meaningful limits on us that we understand and deal with through economic analysis. So active fantasy is not a substitute for reality here.

Rivalry is optimal in the face of substitute tradeoffs. Our wants compete for assets, since everything can’t get done. This is why increasing returns in production can be ignored: they show cost declining with output. But any growth in one sector raises input demand and price, to foster re­source shifts. So that defeats increasing returns; rising costs still are the rule for large expansions of output. Tradeoffs shape production as much as in any other realm.

Materialism is the basis of economic concerns. So were it true – where love is concerned – that ‘what goes around, comes around,’ this is simply a realm where economics shall not apply. The subject of economics is scarcity; it is all about tradeoffs in real choices subject to limits. So any proper notion of firms or individuals in their relations should embrace substitution, not a fantastic complementarity. The basic conception on which The Potlatch stands is simply wrong.

Rivalry is the way of the world; it brings out the best in people. Leading to economic growth, it is a wellspring of value, encouraging ingenuity and ambition to fashion new ways. Pot­latchers think committees are better than individuals at dealing with crises and learning new things. This is simply absurd. The only thing groups do is find the lowest common ele­ment, and then dilute it further. Were we to follow Potlatcher ways, we’d still live in caves!

Their fear of competition has psychological roots. Insecure people like cooperation as shelter from meaning, conflict, commitment, confrontation and challenge. Potlatchers say our rivalrous system makes us immature and childish, and then support protecting us all from meaningful lives altogether! How can one take this seriously? Economics supports competition as the means to markets’ efficiency. Calling rivalry ineffi­cient does not make any sense! The case for cooperation is founded on dreams and desire, not truth.

The Joust demands successful achievement, churning goods out of fields and depths, as shown by energy, agriculture, fisheries and mines. The relative growth of population and wealth in these societies scores strongly in favor of competition over cooperation. More people are richer in the Joust than anyone could have foreseen. The Pot­latch is stalled, dull, lacking incentive for real advance, stuck in a cul-de-sac of its own design. There is no argument here against The Joust as an optimal life founded on economic concerns. So will The Joust triumph over The Potlatch, if people look at these systems, seeing how each performs. The Potlatch will languish in our dust, as Jousters surge ahead. There is no rational argument here about which system is best!

  1. The Potlatcher Reply to the Jousters

“This is the difference of sales from science: Jousters see their own system, but only from within. No attempt is made by them to entertain any alternative view, which might transform their understanding into a broader realm. Open inquiry seems utterly alien to The Joust; self-promotion – as the cultural life-style of competition – obviates social shifts of vantage. Advocating an agenda – over learning, curiosity, understanding and truth-seeking – is incompatible with any search for knowledge in an objective frame. Escaping closure in ideas is a key to expansive vision; no Jouster can know The Potlatch without opening up. Given their complacence, there is scant hope for revision here.”

Cooperation demands that everyone deal with those around them openly in their interrelations. When people come together on issues, all must take others seriously and listen to what they say. Yet competition never requires such honest exchange of views; one can avoid divergent opinion without any understanding, communication or reply. This is a critical difference between Potlatch and Joust societies: one insists on direct contact; the other invites opposition. Dealing with people as equals, and hearing out their concerns, shall lead to an openminded exposure to outlooks separate from one’s own. This is a cultural opportunity alien to The Joust.

The Joust is stuck in its own addiction to physical goods, short horizons and acquisitive values, seeing little beyond these ends. Even the slightest glance at outcomes shows stag­gering ecological losses spreading out from unsustainable economic consumption. No evident checks on exhaustible life-supporting capacities show in Jouster resource use. Short horizons are the cause: myopic concerns seem everywhere in Jouster representations. Such is symptomatic of failure; rivalry always sabotages complementary yields. Shortsightedness stems from inattention to learning, communication, knowledge and community in a world of interdependent ties.

Jousters say that competition is good for R&D, as scientists strive for recognition among colleagues in academics. Self-promotion, however, is not conducive to open curiosity; instead, research is structured defensively for one view over others. This style of inquiry yields a closed system of orthodoxy, opposed to novel ideas and departures. Any university is a realm of complementarity – even a test case for cooperation – not a place for rivalry. Competi­tion in complementary settings is doomed to fail. Look at prevailing attention spans throughout the Jouster realm: most people are more intrigued by sports and drama than news. They care little about community or the rest of the world.

The case against The Joust is overwhelming and decisive. Values are not things to be owned, and culture has more to do with horizon effects and breadth of vision than it does with acquisition, self-promotion and personal gain. The whole thrust of Joust mentality is symptomatic of mental illness! In the frustration of vital wants, they are addicted to physical things – seductively advertised, then found empty. No economic welfare results from producing excess supply: the outcome is social despair. Resources squandered to an immediate whim may not be there when needed: basic common sense suggests that virtues stem from maturity – and that selfishness, unconstrained by wisdom, brings a death threat to all we love.

A sense of foreboding and dismay is seen throughout the Potlatcher realm, because of Jouster refusals to confront their own denial. Learned people in Potlatch society often address this problem as a mounting crisis of vital importance to Potlatchers’ survival. As The Joust depletes its supplies – seas, forests, agricultural land, mines and energy sources – so will Jouster atten­tions shift to Potlatcher reserves. One should not trivialize the threat to Potlatch society: Jousters seldom are chary of force as a means to attain their ends.

So Potlatchers seek a peaceful solution to this urgent dilemma. Most believe that The Joust – despite its illegitimate frame – means to exploit the dwindling assets of our planet for themselves. Jousters will not listen to reason, as they consider the argument won. Indeed, their relentless support of The Joust is more like a religious crusade than an argument to be discussed. Deities of Acquisition – in a world of increasing returns – are requisites to Power. And no community can endure in the presence of fear, force, subversion, opportunism or predation: everyone needs to come together for cooperation to work. Can the impending collapse of Potlatch society ever be turned around? This is the overriding concern of Potlatchers today…

Postscript: These issues are intentionally left unresolved because that is how they remain today. Readers will have to address such matters themselves and reach their own conclusions.

Frederic Jennings

Frederic Jennings has a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University, and is President of the Center for Ecological Economic and Ethical Education (CEEEE) located in Ipswich, MA. Frederic also is on the staff of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate ( as their ecological economist.

Tags: building resilient economies, competition, cooperation