Palm Springs, California -At the front gates of the Rancho Las Palmas resort, a few hundred liberals rallied Sunday against "corporate greed" and polluters. They chanted for the arrest of billionaires Charles and David Koch, and their ire was also directed at the other free market-oriented businessmen invited here by the Koch brothers to discuss free markets and electoral strategies. Billionaires poisoning our politics was the central theme of the protests. But nothing is quite as it seems in modern politics: The protest's organizer, the nonprofit Common Cause, is funded by billionaire George Soros.
Common Cause has received $2 million from Soros's Open Society Institute in the past eight years, according to grant data provided by Capital Research Center. Two panelists at Common Cause's rival conference nearby -- President Obama's former green jobs czar, Van Jones, and blogger Lee Fang -- work at the Center for American Progress, which was started and funded by Soros but, as a 501(c)4 nonprofit "think tank," legally conceals the names of its donors.
In other words, money from billionaire George Soros and anonymous, well-heeled liberals was funding a protest against rich people's influence on politics.
When Politico reporter Ken Vogel pointed out that Soros hosts similar "secret" confabs, CAP's Fang responded on Twitter: "don't you think there's a very serious difference between donors who help the poor vs. donors who fund people to kill government, taxes on rich?"
In less than 140 characters, Fang had epitomized the myopic liberal view of money in politics: Conservative money is bad, and linked to greed, while liberal money is self-evidently philanthropic.
Jane Mayer wrote in the New Yorker magazine, for instance, that the Kochs' anti-regulation, anti-bailout, low-tax agenda "dovetail[s] with the brothers' corporate interest." Mayer quoted a Soros spokesman saying "none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests."
This is the Obama campaign's tune, too. While decrying Republican campaign contributions in an Obama fundraising e-mail, someone at Organizing for America apparently got self-conscious about the irony and tagged the e-mail with a subject line saying: "Our Donations Are Different."
So, is Soros' money really different from the Kochs' money?
On one level, they're equivalent: They are rich people using their wealth to advance their favored policies.
But the core CAP claim -- that the Soroses and Peter Lewises of the world are trying to help the poor, while the Kochs are not -- is ungrounded.
The Kochs argue, with plenty of evidence, that economic freedom and the prosperity it yields are the best things a government can offer to the poor.
And the accompanying liberal claim -- that pro-free market donations boost the donors' profits while pro-big government donations don't -- is also false.
First off -- and this was the point of a talk I gave Sunday at the Koch conference -- many of the industrialists in the audience could profit more through regulations and subsidies than they could through the free market. Some oil executives, for example, have supported California's strict refinery regulations because they kept out competitors. Natural gas companies like Enron have backed cap and trade because it hurt oil and coal. As for bankers -- the Wall Street bailouts made it clear that big government is their mother's milk.
Second, until Soros discloses all the investments and short positions of all his funds and all his personal wealth, it's not possible to conclude whether his advocacy is motivated by public interest or personal gain. Is he short coal? Has he invested in GE's Greenhouse Gas Services, which, dealing in greenhouse gas credits, depends on a cap-and-trade law in order to be profitable?
We know that other liberal philanthropists use their wealth to advance big-government positions that enrich them. Take Warren Buffett, that relentless champion of the estate tax. His support for a high inheritance tax could be civic-mindedness, but it could also be related to his life insurance holdings and his tendency to buy up successful family businesses forced to sell out by the death tax -- that's how he got the Buffalo News.
Finally, while Soros money and Koch money are superficially equivalent, there's a crucial distinction. If we take both sides at their word, Soros and other liberal donors spend in order to impose their preferences on others while the Kochs and other free-market donors spend in an effort to be left alone to buy and sell with willing parties.
The moral difference is this: Only one side is trying to compel others to conform to its preferences.
Consider how each side profits from its favored policies: The Kochs benefit if government takes less of their profit. To be sure, they could pocket the difference and not make charitable contributions to the poor. In moral terms, that would be selfish or just plain greedy.
Soros and his wealthy supporters profit from the government taxing or threatening to tax the children of a business owner. That's the moral equivalent of mugging.
--- DISCLOSURE: I was not paid for my Palm Springs talk, but in the past, for editing, mentoring, speaking, and the like, Koch-affiliated non-profits have paid me -- approximately $3,000 over the course of my decade in Washington. --- Correction: Originally I incorrectly attributed the quote by Soros's spokesman to Jane Mayer. Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.