Over time, ideologies can evolve in unforeseen ways. Consider the following four public policy developments:

1. The Biden administration has attempted to forgive many student loans for college education.
2. Several cities in California have imposed rent controls.
3. Florida recently banned lab grown meat.
4. North Carolina is attempting to ban mask wearing in public.

While the first two examples are often views as progressive legislation and the other two are viewed as populist initiatives, they all share something in common. In each case, the legislation can be seen as a perversion of an earlier form of the ideology in question.

Let’s start with progressivism.  At the beginning, this ideology was heavily motivated by flaws (real or imagined) in laissez-faire economics.  Progressives worried that unrestrained capitalism might lead to abusive monopolies and a highly unequal distribution of income.  This led to policy initiatives such as regulation of rates charged by utilities and redistribution programs such as the earned income tax credit.

Over time, however, progressivism became increasingly associated with the means, and not the ends of legislation.  Thus to be a progressive meant to favor “regulation” and “redistribution”, regardless of whether it achieved the original goals of the movement.

Obviously, the case for rent controls in markets with thousands of individual landlords is far weaker than the case for price controls when there is a single monopoly provider of water or electricity.  And it is equally clear that the case for redistributing money from the general taxpayer to college educated Americans is far weaker than the argument for redistributing money to low wage workers.  But the progressive movement is dominated by younger Americans.  This group is disproportionately comprised of recent college grads living in apartments in expensive coastal cities.

The recent wave of populism was at least partly motivated by resentment against the perception that elites were forcing the public into undesirable changes in their lifestyle (such as mask wearing during pandemics) and unpopular climate change initiatives (such as the discouragement of meat consumption.)  But over time, the lifestyle issues gradually came to displace the “freedom” aspect of populism.  Opposition to mask mandates morphed into simple opposition to masks.  Resentment that elites were trying to impose a certain lifestyle was replaced by attempts to ban the undesired lifestyle. 

This is the natural evolution of populism.  It begins as an attempt to free the public from oppression, and ends up imposing another form of oppression once the populists gain power.

One could cite many more such examples.  The college free speech movement of the 1960s was originally focused on allowing students to express far left political views.  By the 2000s, the freedom aspect was forgotten and college activists had begun trying to mandate that students express left wing views.

Similarly, right wing opposition to woke excesses began as an attempt to allow more free speech on campus, but in at least some places has evolved into an attempt to ban certain left wing ideologies.

The civil rights movement began as a crusade for a colorblind society.  While the initial focus was on outlawing discrimination against minorities, over time the emphasis shifted toward mandating discrimination in favor of minorities.  (Those “reverse discrimination” policies may have had unintended side effects, such as making employers reluctant to hire workers that they might be unable to fire at some point in the future.)

Feminism began as an attempt to stop society from treating people differently because of their gender, but has evolved into an ideology demanding that people be treated differently because of their gender.

Why do ideologies continually lose their bearings?  I suspect the problem reflects the fact that very few people are committed to broad principles such as freedom or utility maximization.  Instead, they have “special interests”, and use these various ideologies as a convenient cudgel to attack their opponents and achieve their actual policy goals.

PS.  Matt Yglesias has a very good post discussing some of the same issues.