Yesterday Politico had a big feature story on Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire who is very opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline and has intervened in the Massachusetts Democratic Senate race to run ads against Rep. Steven Lynch, who favors Keystone.

At Hullabaloo, David Atkins smells a false-equivalency rat:

The story spends a lot of time with fretting and gnashing of teeth about how this one individual will make the horrible, horrible “mistake” of shifting Democrats too far to the left, just as the Koch brothers have shifted Republicans to the right–as if that somehow hasn’t been a successful strategy for Charles and David Koch, or as if one liberal billionaire’s efforts amount to much of anything against the entire weight of the conservative establish and fossil fuel industry money….

I’m certainly no fan of capricious billionaires dictating policy. But as long as we’re going to have a system that’s entirely bought and paid for by rich people, there’s nothing wrong with rich people who have a moral compass on something besides social issues getting into the game. Treating Koch Brother money to protect their ill-gotten riches as functionally equivalent to a philanthropist concerned about the future of the planet is moral insanity.

The authors of the article, Andrew Restuccia and Kenneth Vogel, do quote Steyer making the same distinction, and disclaiming any financial interest in renewable energy or another other industry that might benefit from the policies he promotes. But yeah, the overall tenor of the piece suggests crazy billionaires are now in danger of ruining both parties.

It does raise an interesting but difficult issue, though, about the motives of moneybag gazillionaires accepting the Supreme Court’s invitation to run wild in our political system. Is it possible to separate financial and “ideological” motives? Consider Sheldon Adelson. He claims his heavy involvement in right-wing Republican politics of late is motivated by his desire for more strongly pro-Israeli (or more accurately, more strongly pro-Netanyahu) policies in Washington. There’s no reason to doubt that’s a factor, since he’s actually been more involved in right-wing Israeli politics than in the presidential ambitions of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. But he’s also got a long history of hostility to unions in his various businesses, and has a strong bottom-line interest in heading off federal investigations of his casino enterprises. So where does the idealism end and the pure money-grubbing start? Hard to say.

Even for the Kochs, the fact that the politicians and policies they promote would undeniably and massively benefit their businesses doesn’t entirely rule out “disinterested” motives. Best I can tell, like many other wealthy men, they read Ayn Rand under the covers after bedtime as adolescents, and never grew up.

That may be a distinction without a difference when it comes to people who embrace a “high-minded” ideology based on the virtue of selfishness. And in general, I’d be a lot happier if we could confine the political influence of gazillionaires to distributing cranky pamphlets like the Hunt Brothers and Robert Welch used to do.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.