Constraints to Progress (part 3): Identity Politics and Ideology

This is the third post for an ongoing series about constraints to progress. See also parts one and two.

In previous posts in this series, I made the claim that the diffusion of progress from more wealthier societies to poorer societies has been constrained by:

  • Geographical distance (nations that are geographically distant from wealthier nations have difficulty copying what works in other nations)
  • Cultural distance (nations that are very different culturally from wealthier nations are less likely to copy what works than nations with cultures similar to wealthy nations)
  • Monopolies (institutions that do not face competition are less likely to innovate and copy the innovations of other institutions)
  • Legacy of society types (individuals whose ancestors came from less complex societies centuries ago are less likely to innovate and copy the innovations of others)

In this post, I will make the argument that the most significant constraint to progress today are racial/ethnic/religious identities and radical ideologies.

Ethnic/Religious/Racial Identities

In previous posts we learned that cultural distance creates barriers to diffusion of innovations in technologies, skills and social organizations. So why is cultural distance such a barrier? Why don’t people objectively compare results and copy those that seem to work best?

Paul Richerson and Robert Boyd’s theory of Cultural Evolution helps us to answer this question (for more on this subject, check out the following summaries). Richerson and Boyd posit that as human societies evolve, groups naturally tend to differentiate. People start to adapt the customs and values of other people within the same societies. At first, this might seem to predict long cultural unification, but the actual results are the opposite. As peoples who live in close proximity become more similar, they also become more different from people in distant regions.

As cultures evolved humans created cultural markers to visually denote who belongs to their group. They evolved common languages, religions, dress, hairstyles and mannerism to show fellow members that they are both in the same group.

Humans also tend to invest moral judgments upon these differences. My group’s markers are not just different from other groups, they are better. For a person who rarely comes into contact with other cultures, seemingly strange customs become not only normal but also desirable.

Because technologies, skills and social organizations are an important part of a culture, humans naturally invest them with a moral worth. They are not just useful technologies, skills and social organizations; they are how we do things. They are part of what makes our culture meaningful. They may even be the will of the gods.

When we invest a moral quality to cultural identity, it is easy to see why culturally distance groups would resist copying technologies, skills and social organizations even if they were clearly superior. Those ways are not our ways. We have our own ways and they have worked perfectly well for as long as my people have been around. Why should I copy people who are so clearly strange and morally inferior?

While this way of thinking is declining in the 21st Century, ethnic/religious/racial identities are still a powerful barrier to poor groups copying the technologies, skills and social organizations of more successful groups. Elites in poor societies, in particular, have a vested interest in stopping diffusion. These new technologies and skills promote new social organizations that potentially fund political rivals. Elites in poor societies would rather be leaders of poor societies than middling members of prosperous societies.

For this reason, elites in poor societies try to mobilize fellow members of their ethno-religious-racial group against foreigners and other successful groups within their country. By harnessing the natural human need to be part of a cohesive moral community, elites can use these identities to undermine the threat to their power that modernity represents.

While their people will benefit from copying more successful nations and minorities, most elites in poor countries do everything that they can to promote resentment towards the successful. They promote a zero-sum mentality where the success of someone else hurts us as a people. They promote the idea that those who are successful are actually hurting other people by being successful. They promote the idea that the group must stick together to fight back against their oppressors.

Promoting ethnic/religious/racial resentments against the successful has also become far more common in wealthy societies. While in 1970 most wealthy nations were quite homogeneous in all three dimensions, widespread immigration since that time has made almost all wealthy nations far more diverse.

Left-wing parties have increasingly focused their energies on promoting resentments of the descendents of immigrants against the more successful native population. Right-wing parties have increasingly focused their energies on promoting counter-resentments against immigrant populations. Both undermine the desire of ethnic/religious/racial minorities to copy the successful and integrate into the larger population.

There is nothing inherently bad about ethnic, religious or racial identities. Humans are social animals. We naturally identify ourselves with a group and feel a need to conform to the values and behaviors of that group. This is very unlikely to change no matter how much progress the world experiences.

Ethnic, religious and racial identities can also be harnessed as a means of promoting the idea copying the technologies, skills and social organizations of more successful individuals and peoples. Political leaders can challenge their people to acknowledge problems and devote resources to catching up.

Unfortunately, political leaders far more often promote resentment of the successful. They believe this will help their people, when in fact this resentment keeps their people from enjoying the benefits of progress.

The Threat of Radical Ideologies

Most of the constraints on progress discussed in previous posts go back millennia. In 1917, however, a new threat to progress emerged: totalitarian ideologies. Just when repressive Agrarian empires in Europe were collapsing under the pressure of World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of worldwide democracy, freedom and trade looked like they might win a total victory, Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks came to power.

The Bolsheviks played on class resentments against more successful groups in society. They used this resentment to establish extremely centralized regimes that subordinated all decisions in society to Communist doctrine. The Communists quickly gained control over all political, military, economic, religious and cultural organizations. Nothing was outside the purview of the state and ideology, not even the family.

The Bolsheviks created a template for action that dominated much of the 20th Century: a small dedicated group of ideologues achieving power through violence. Once in power, those ideologues subordinated everything to the centralized state. All alternate views and ways of doing things were to be stamped out through indoctrination and violence. A viewpoint less conducive to the bottom-up progress is hard to imagine.

From 1917 until 1991 the radical ideologies of Fascism, Nazism, Communism and Authoritarian Socialism did enormous damage to humanity. These ideologies focused class, ethnic, religious and racial resentment upon more successful groups in their own society and abroad.

These regimes copied the technologies innovated by much freer Industrial societies and transformed them from agents of progress that benefited the masses into agents of death and rigid conformity. Ideologues started wars, committed genocides and established some of the most brutal regimes in world history. While World War II stamped out the threats of Nazism and Fascism, that same war also gave ideologies of the Left a new burst of life.

Since 1917, progress has been under threat by ideologies on both the right and left that seek to radically centralize political power and subordinate all decisions within society to ideology. While the old Agrarian elites sought to use centralized institutions to extract wealth from society, new ideological movements seek to use the same methods to transform society towards utopian ideals.

The final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 unleashed the greatest wave of progress that the world has ever known. Nation after nation abandoned Communism and Authoritarian Socialism in favor of allowing people to solve their own problems. Faith in the ability of the all-powerful centralized state to deliver utopian solutions collapsed.

Before 1991, wealthy Western nations and a few East Asian countries enjoyed the bulk of the progress. After that date, the vast majority of mankind has done so. As we saw in other posts, that progress included major achievements in per capita GDP, education, health, sanitation, water supply, neonatal mortality, longevity and declining levels of violence.

Unfortunately, the threat from ideologies has not completely disappeared. The threat has merely transformed. In both Europe and the United States there has been a tremendous polarization of politics. Whereas one large center-left party and one large center-right party typically dominated politics in 1990, most democratic nations have recently experienced a surge of left-wing and right-wing politics.

In particular, college-educated professionals have moved from supporting center-right parties to left-wing politics. From the late 1940s until the 1960s, members of the working class who wanted to use the power of government to provide economic growth and security dominated the voters for parties of the left. For this reason, parties of the left generally favored more spending on pensions, health care, education and unemployment benefits. But the center-left leaders also knew that a market-based economy was essential for paying for those programs.

Starting in the 1960s and gradually building over the decades, college-educated professionals joined the parties of the center-left. They gradually transformed party ideology to focus on the environment, peace, gender, race and immigration. All of these issues were ones where the traditional working-class constituencies of the center-left parties took stands that were closer to the parties on the right. Pro-immigration policies by center-left parties, in particular, provoked a strong backlash.

The result since 1990 has been a rapid decline in center-left parties throughout Europe and a rapid increase of ideological parties on both the left and the right. In this polarized environment, college-educated professionals have moved rapidly to the left and working-class voters have moved rapidly to the right.

Both sides are hostile to the ideal of progress. They both subscribe to the doctrine of “Things are bad, and they are getting worse.” And they both strive to control the government and implement policies that will likely make these statements come true.

Politics is no longer about making incremental changes to redistribute the gains of progress. It is now a zero-sum ideological combat that focuses on identity and resentment.

Throughout human history, religion was the principle means by which humans determined what is moral and what is immoral. Religious texts and traditions were passed down from generation to generation. Even as late as 1900 virtually all people believed in some sort of religion that structured their lives and how they should act towards themselves and others.

With the extraordinary growth of scientific knowledge since the 1840s, an increasing portion of educated people in Western societies have abandoned religion as the key shaper of their morality. Many people hoped and believed that religion was being replaced by logic, science and reason.

While it is true that we have a far greater understanding of the natural world than we used to in the past, I do not believe that religion is being replaced by logic, science and reason. With the exception of sociopaths, humans hunger for morality and desperately what to believe that they are moral beings. Perhaps more important, they want other members of society to perceive them as moral people so the rest of society will cooperate with them. Science and reason can fill our brain with facts, but they cannot convince us that we are moral beings.

Ideology, particularly left-wing ideology, is increasingly replacing religion among educated people in Western nations. In their world-view, it is ideology that increasingly dictates what is moral and immoral. And ideology pushes people to use the power of government to create a more just society, even if it means compelling others who do not share that vision to comply.

While the substitution of ideology for religion is not inherently bad, there are reasons for concern. Most religions, with Islam being a clear exception, create a clear distinction between religious beliefs and government authority. Religions primarily focus on the afterlife, the unknown, morality and how individuals should treat each other. They generally say very little about what governments or other institutions should do.

Ideologies primarily focus on what governments should do and what individuals should do to change government policy. This inevitably leads those who uphold an ideology to want to centralize government power and then use that power for implementing the dictates of the ideology.

Because progress primarily comes from society self-organizing, experimenting with solutions and then copying the solutions that work, a centralized government driven by ideology inherently attacks the very foundations of progress. While the great enemies of progress in the past were centralized extractive institutions designed to satisfy the material interests of elites, today the enemy of progress are extractive institutions designed to satisfy the ideological interests of the affluent.

A particular problem is that ideological leaders deliberately cultivate resentments against successful people of different ethnicities, religions or races. These leaders seek power by intensifying the natural human bias towards viewing their own culture as preferable, even morally superior to others.

Negative Effect of Ideologies

I believe that ideological movements in wealthy Western nations are the most serious threats to future progress. In particular, ideological movements within the United States, which has been the engine of progress for the last century-and-a-half, are concerning.

Though radical ideologies seem very different from each other, they reflect exactly the same mentality. Ideologues on both the right and left divide everyone into groups based upon some demographic characteristic. The group might be based upon ethnicity, race, class, gender, religion, sexuality or nationality. Each group is designated as either “good” or “bad.” In their world individuals do not exist; only groups. The actual characteristics of individuals within each group are irrelevant.

The “bad” groups typically are successful people, while “good” groups are less successful. Ideologues believe that the bad people achieved their success by doing bad things to the unsuccessful. And the good people have done poorly because of the terrible things that bad people have done to them in the present or recent past. The goal of government, in their view, is to punish the successful group while boosting up the unsuccessful group. Progress, to the extent that they believe in it, consists of redistribution and punishment.

This is an extraordinarily inaccurate and dangerous view of human history. Different outcomes between people are largely accounted for by geographical variations in the distant past which constrained food production. How a society acquired its food, in turn, structured their entire society. This resulted in some societies being able to innovate new technologies, skills and social organizations and others to not be able to. Peoples that were lucky enough to have “good” geography have been successful, while those that had “bad” geography stagnated in poverty for millennia.

Rather than hate the successful, we should feel fortunate that a few societies have been able to break out of those geographical constraints. We should also feel fortunate that Industrial societies have innovated technologies, skills and organizations that enable less successful people to finally overcome their historical constraints.

For the first time in history, less successful people can go from poverty to progress by copying more successful peoples in one generation. Less successful people and those who pretend to speak for them should be grateful that finally a way out of millennia of poverty has been created. All they need to do is copy the successful.

Ideologues preach a short-cut that the correct government policies can do to help the less successful. But there are no short cuts. The only proven strategy for success is to copy what has already worked. Dreaming up better pathways to success will lead us nowhere.

Ideologues on both the left and right claim to speak for certain groups and know what is best for them. In reality, they preach policies and attitudes that doom those groups and all others. If we focus all our efforts on resenting the successful and punishing them, we hurt everyone, particularly less successful groups.

While ideologues on both the right and left claim to be able to see the world more clearly than everyone else, their ideas are merely the intellectualization of anger and resentment. This anger and resentment colors everything they see and distorts their entire view on history and the human condition. That anger and resentment does harm to every individual or group that adopts their views. That anger and resentment is a key threat to progress to all of mankind.

While we need positive thinking in order to keep progress going, ideologies emphasize the negative. There is an enormous amount of evidence that optimists, as long as they are also grounded in reality, are far more successful than pessimists. Pessimism can easily become a self-fulfilling as it constantly throws up psychological barriers that discourage action.

While future progress needs people to understand their individual role in promoting success, both for themselves and for all of society, ideology encourages people to portray themselves as if they were victims held back by other groups. This victim mentality encourages people to ignore what they have accomplished or, more importantly, what they can accomplish regardless of whatever barriers exist.

While progress requires keeping an open mind, a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to copy what works, ideology closes the mind. Ideology creates the false perception that the world is very simple, it is well understood and all problems are subject to quick fixes. Ideologues believe that solutions already exist, and all that is required is the moral conviction to implement them.

While progress requires that institutions experiment with widely differing solutions, ideology encourages a group-think mentality. Ideologues believe that all good ideas come from within their group and everyone outside that group lacks the necessary intelligence, courage and moral conviction.

Ideological movements also gradually shut down differences of opinion within the group. This creates a self-limiting dynamic, a downward spiral of conformity, that ultimately undermines every ideological movement.

While progress requires that different people with different views and skills focus on solving different problems, ideology encourages the belief that we only have to get rid of the people who are interfering with implementing the correct policies. Ideologues believe that we already know what works; we just have to have moral conviction to implement them over the protests of less enlightened people.

While progress requires problem-solvers who experiment with different solutions, ideologues encourage people to believe that the world is divided between those who speak the truth and those who speak lies.

While progress requires that people constantly compare the current situation with the actual alternatives in existence, ideologues compare reality to a pure vision that only exists in their heads. Reality can never compare favorably to a vision that does not exist. In visions, all trade-offs and conflicting interests disappear into the void of perfection.

But if we compare our reality with what has actually existed in the past, our current situation does not look so bad. In fact, it looks pretty darn good. An understanding of previous progress can be an incentive to keep working on future progress.

While progress requires practical problem-solvers, ideologies encourage grand visions. Practical solutions to make society just a little better are of no interest to ideologues. Only dramatic transformations are acceptable.

While progress requires that we divert resources towards solutions that will make peoples lives better, ideologues wish to divert a huge proportion of our resources towards implementing a utopian vision. Ultimately, that vision can never be achieved and the attempt to do so will waste valuable resources that could be used to solve more practical problems.

While progress requires an understanding of history to learn what works and what previous attempts have failed, ideologues have a strong amnesia. History is rewritten as a series of noble failures that would have worked if only “bad” people had not sabotaged them. Ideologues believe that their next attempt will clearly have better results, despite the fact that they are merely repeating what has already repeatedly failed. And the very real progress that came from more pragmatic experimentation is completely ignored.

While progress requires a wide variety of opinions, ideology encourages people to shut down differing opinions. Because the truth is known, a diversity of opinions being voiced only slows down the “correct” policies from being implemented. The more logical the argument of those differing opinions, the more important it is to shut those opinions down.

While progress requires small-scale experimentation and constant iteration based upon results, ideology encourages people to ignore results. Because ideologues view the world as a moral struggle between the righteous and the evil, results do not matter to them. In particular, whether a policy works or not is trivial in comparison to the intentions of the people who originally implemented those policies.

While progress requires a decentralization of power so that political, economic and religious elites do not warp experimentations for their own self-interest, ideologues seek to centralize power. For ideologues, this makes perfect sense because they believe the world is understood and morality dictates very clear action. Decentralization of power only interferes with the ability of the ideologues to implement their grand visions.

Ideologues cannot see progress because their only means of comparison is to an ideal vision that only exists in their heads. They do not compare societies with each other or with how those societies were in the past. Because it is easy to imagine a society without problems, any real existing society will always come up short.

Ideologues fundamentally misunderstand the causes of progress. They apparently believe that the world improves when those who are more enlightened than the rest of us take a public stand and attempt to persuade others through moral argument. As the persuaded become the majority, then the government will then adopt policies that make the world a better place.

Ideologues promise short cuts that enable entire peoples to suddenly jump to another type of society. There is not the slightly evidence from history that this is possible. Even worse, they undermine what actually works: the vast decentralized problem-solving network that is a modern society.

When ideologues first attempt to seize power, they focus on youth groups and education. Their goal is to thoroughly indoctrinate the next generation so that they cannot even conceive of another viewpoint. The Nazis did this via the Hitler Youth. The Communists did this via the Pioneers and Comsomol.

Teaching children that the best means of achieving progress is political activism and loyalty to the state inflicts terrible damage. Rather than learning the skills and values necessary to flourish in a modern society, ideologues teach that the successful achieve their success via exploitation and privilege. Their project will inevitably fail to transform society for the better, but it will cause a great deal of suffering before it collapses.

Ideologues cannot see that progress comes from very mundane individual actions. Progress comes from children and young adults learning skills that are valued in the market place, by perfecting those skills by working years at a trade, by cooperating with others in an organization, by moving to geographical regions that offer greater economic opportunities and teaching those skills and values to their children.

Progress also comes from engineers designing products that are just a little bit better than the last year’s model, by entrepreneurs founding new businesses to innovate new products and more effective business models, by managers who help to scale up fledgling businesses into enterprises capable of competing in the world marketplace, by skilled workers solving the little problems required in implementing a new technology, skill or social organization.

All of this happens naturally, when the right conditions exist. Some of these conditions are geographic, some are political, and many are technological.

Government policy plays a role in this, but far less than many imagine. Most of the policies that promote progress are very mundane and do little to excite political activists: investments in vaccinations, preventative medicine, sanitation, transportation, energy, education of basic literacy and numeracy as well as teaching specialized engineering and entrepreneurial skills. The big social programs that take up huge amounts of funding accomplish relatively little in comparison, except to redistribute the gains of progress. Indeed the funding of these programs is dependent upon the economic development that progress generates.

Ideologues have a strong self-interest in society not believing in progress. Think about it. If everyone believed that the world is better than ever, it will likely continue to get better in the future and there is relatively little that government can do to improve the situation, why would anyone support radical politics?

Belief in progress is an existential threat to any radical movement, so they must promote a view of modern society that is dark and pessimistic. They know that they must promote a fear of the future, so they can portray themselves as the protectors of society. They realize that anger, resentment, pessimism and fear are key to their achieving power.

Critical Theory Movement

While previous threats to progress have come from Totalitarian movements such as Communism, Nazism, Authoritarian Socialism and Fascism, a new Totalitarian movement is currently gaining ground within the United States. This movement goes under many different names, including Wokeness and Social Justice, but it is best understood as Critical Theory.

As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have documented in their book “Cynical Theories,” (see summary here) critical theorists see a world without individuals. In the mind of critical theorists only groups exist. They view the world as permeated with Power and Domination, where groups manipulate language to oppress other groups. Critical theorists see all differences in outcome between any group or individual as a sign of linguistic oppression that must be ended.

The flavor of Critical theory that is most popular is Critical Racial Theory, which preaches that whites dominate blacks and other races with their manipulation of language. But it is important to understand that this ideology is not restricted to race. It is gradually being applied to every domain of human knowledge and human relationships. Critical theorists have played the rhetoric trick of playing on people’s ethnic/religious/racial identities to heighten resentment towards any group that is more successful than average.

Critical theory has been applied to an ever-expanding number of domains: race, gender, sexuality, disability, obesity, science, mathematics and logic. Critical theorists believe that all these domains need to be subjected to relentless criticism (hence the name) because they are really about power and dominations. All these concepts must relentlessly criticized until they are hollowed out and they collapse on their own accord. Then somehow a new society will be reborn without inequalities of any type (they are very vague on this point for obvious reasons). It would be hard to come up with a theory that is worse for promoting progress, individual success and happiness.

Critical theory is particularly insidious because it does not play on one group identity. Nazism and Fascism played on ethnic identity. Communism and Socialism played on class identity. Critical theory plays on all identities, and worse it is constantly inventing new identities that never existed in the political domain.

Because Critical theory plays on all identities and creates justifications for why the disadvantaged should resent the successful rather than copy them, it represents a threat to progress. Just as the Communists and Nazis tried to sabotage progress, or at least redirect it towards profoundly illiberal ends, so does Critical theory. The fact that it is strongest in the United States, a nation that has played an important role in driving progress over the last two centuries, makes it particularly dangerous.

I believe that Critical theory will fail because it is based upon such obvious nonsense. It cannot possibly survive questioning or rational inquiry. That is exactly why Critical theory attacks those concepts. People will quickly realize that no one is safe from mob attacks, real or digital, not even those groups who are supposedly being helped.

People will quickly realize that Critical theory has no solutions; it has only relentless criticism of everything but itself. Indeed, constructive solutions cannot be imagined within their theory: they only believe in Power and Domination. People will realize that those who embrace the ideology turn themselves into unsuccessful and unhappy people who alienate everyone around them. So inevitably, the movement sabotaged itself and everything that it comes into contact with.


For virtually all of history, humans lived under constraints that made progress impossible. Their societies were trapped in a level of development far below what we consider poor today. Most important were geographical constraints that determined what type of food could be acquired in the natural environment. These constraints determined which society types could evolve in that natural environment, which in turn greatly effected the rate of innovation. Geographical distance also made it difficult for most societies to copy successful innovations in distant societies.

Human societies have also largely unintentionally erected man-made constraints on progress: monopolies, cultural distance, ethic/religious/racial identities and radical ideologies that breed resentment against the successful. Because of industrial technologies, both geographical and man-made constraints have declined dramatically over the last few generations, leading to the progress that we are currently experiencing. Despite this fact, we need to be aware of that constraints against progress still exist and need to be diminished so that all people can enjoy the benefits of our progress.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.

The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress”
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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