New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently steamed about the lack of equal opportunity in America. In his view, “government falls down on the job of creating equal opportunity.” He’s also huffed that:

When you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society.

This begs the question: What is equal opportunity? It’s certainly an idea claimed by both the right and the left, so why is it that the right insists it exists while the left stridently claims it has yet to be achieved?

The answer has to do with the two sides’ differing concepts of equality of opportunity.

Conservatives maintain that all humans possess inherently equal rights and should therefore be treated equally before the law. They do, however, recognize that people are unequal in many other regards: People are born into different situations and with different talents and abilities. But no one should face interference or legal obstacles in cultivating his talents and industry.

The great Frederick Douglass eloquently advanced this idea:

If men were born in need of crutches, instead of having legs, the fact would be otherwise. We should then be in need of help, and would require outside aide; but according to the wiser and better arrangement of nature, our duty is done better by not hindering than by helping our fellow-men; or, in other words, the best way to help them is just to let them help themselves.

The left has transformed this traditional understanding of equal opportunity into one where it is not enough that people possess equal inherent rights and receive equal treatment before the law. People must all be given the same opportunities—no one may have more opportunities than someone else. Under this belief, when one is born in a city where some people have more opportunities than others, it is the duty of government to equalize them, by taking resources from the well-off and giving them to the less well-off. As founder Nathaniel Chipman wrote, this violates justice twice:

To exclude the meritorious from riches and honors, and to perpetuate either to the undeserving, are equally injurious to the rights of man in society. In both it is to counteract the laws of nature, which have, by the connection of cause and effect, annexed the proper rewards and punishments to the actions of men. Wealth, or at least, a competency, is the reward, provided by the laws of nature, for prudent industry; want, the punishment of idleness and profligacy.

Utilizing government to equalize groups contradicts the proposition that everyone is equal before the law and possesses equal rights: How can resources be directed toward those with less without implying that they’re different before the law and in the rights they possess?

This worldview by definition cannot ever be satisfied, because, short of socialism, there will always be individuals who own and command more resources than the rest.

Furthermore, equality of opportunity encompasses much more than mere economic condition. Consider natural athletic talent, intelligence, work ethic—are we going to handicap the most talented athletes, dumb down the most intelligent people, and restrain the hardest workers?

The debate about equality is not merely between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. It’s also about the meaning of equality of opportunity. For the left, it means government must manufacture an equalized starting point in life. Short of socialism, this is impossible. Even so, an equal economic start would be no guarantor of equal opportunity, for that would also require controlling natural talents, abilities, and work ethics, which start on different levels. For the right, equal opportunity is about clearing obstacles and removing legal impediments to moving ahead in life. The difference explains why both sides can claim the mantle of equal opportunity yet be talking right past one another.