|Oh no, they're talking about|
Meritocracy means being promoted or recognized for actual works that improve the arena in which you work, or volunteer; it should mean, in faux-Greek, rule by the meritorious.
Meritocracy rests on the validity of objective external measures of merit, which can become extremely difficult when some people have skills or resources enabling them to "game" the measurements.[note 1] This, naturally, disrupts the correlation between the measure and the merit and makes the measure meaningless. Decisions informed by meaningless measures are very unlikely to be good ones.
In the United States
Conservatives are adamant that the United States is a complete meritocracy in all ways, and are incensed at any suggestion that it is not. The very idea that any group has an inherent leg up drives them wild, and so they oppose all measures designed to rectify these problems. This most often comes out in the college application process, where conservatives seem to take as a given that test scores and grades perfectly correlate with merit. This ignores that many rich people have far greater access to test preparation materials (including the thousands of dollars for personal tutoring and admissions consulting), the huge cultural biases in the tests themselves, or the fact that the main thing that the tests test for is test taking skills.[note 2] Also, meritocracy apparently doesn't apply for Asian-American students, as enrollment has gone down at Harvard despite the huge rise in Asian-Americans winning top academic awards. In fact, white people will actually advocate de-emphasizing test scores in the admission process when reminded that Asians tend to get better grades overall. This sort of behavior from prestigious institutions of higher education is not historically unprecedented; for the first half of the twentieth century, Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League schools had what was called a "Jewish Quota".
Interestingly, liberals also believe in meritocracy, but just believe that no society has fully attained that ideal yet. Neither liberals nor conservatives appear to question whether they really want to be governed by the earnest, driven, self-promoting, and ambitious people who are likelier to succeed in competitive endeavors.
The emphasis on documented grades and degrees introduces a selection on the basis of conformity; those who do not rock the boat or challenge received wisdom are at increased likelihood of receiving high grades, and more advanced degrees from more (arbitrarily) prestigious institutions. Those who do not conform face increased probability being denied degrees in a society that treats degrees as a mandatory condition of access to the economic goods of society. This selection process has pervasive effects on the educational system, including systematic dumbing-down of curricula, stifling of intellectual curiosity, and its limitation to economically remunerative fields, encouragement of academic dishonesty, and "degree inflation".
In the Mongol Empire
In the late 12th and start of the the 13th century, the disparate tribes on Mongolia united into two opposing factions, led by Temujin and Jamuqa. While Jamuqa retained the traditional family ties and connections as a basis for seniority, Temujin threw that out and instituted a new system whereby warriors were promoted based on battle prowess, individual merit, and loyalty to their khan. This meant that Temujin's followers gave their leader far more loyalty than did those of Jamuqa, and meant that Temujin's faction was overall a much more disciplined and effective fighting force. This policy, coupled with Temujin welcoming warriors from defeated tribes and being even-handed with the plunder, allowed him to defeat Jamuqa, and go on to become Genghis Khan, arguably the most successful conqueror in history.
- It is nearly always easier to game the measurements than to change the reality being measured. (See Perverse incentive.)
- Somehow, though, conservatives never get worked up over "legacy admitting", which allows the wealthy connected children of alumni automatic admission.
- Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Three Rivers Press, 2004, p 53