Despite the negative origin of the word, there are many who believe that a meritocratic system is a good thing for society. Proponents of meritocracy argue that a meritocratic system is more just and more productive than other systems, and that it allows for an end to distinctions based on such arbitrary things as sex, race or social connections. Detractors of meritocracy, on the other hand, argue that the central dystopian aspect of Young's conception — the existence of a meritocratic class that monopolises access to merit and the symbols and markers of merit, and thereby perpetuates its own power, social status, and privilege.
In writing the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on Chapter Five of John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, which conceives of a society where the foundation of all property is solely the labour exerted by men. Locke argued that the acquisition of property was not morally wrong, if it were acquired through the exertion of labour and if it were in order to meet one's own immediate needs. So, he said, society is necessarily stratified, but by merit, not by birth. This doctrine of industry and merit as opposed to idleness and inheritance as the determining factor in a just society argued strongly against kings and governments of nobles and their lackeys, in favor of representative republicanism.
Often, opponents of the concept of meritocracy argue that characteristics such as intelligence or effort are simply impossible to measure accurately. Therefore, in their view, any implementation of meritocracy necessarily involves a high degree of guesswork and is inherently flawed. Those who support free markets believe that the free market can and should determine both merit and reward. Meritocracy has also been criticized as a myth which merely serves to justify the status quo; merit can always be defined as whatever results in success, thus whoever is successful can be portrayed as meriting success, rather than success being in fact predicated on rational, predetermined criteria of merit.
A later non-meritocratic practice, however, was Bonaparte's appointment of family members and Corsican friends to important positions (specifically regional leadership); loyalty may have been a more important factor than sheer merit in performance, a common case in political situations.
Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate of meritocratic types of government, believing they are superior to all other known forms of government; in more general terms, he believed a noble "natural aristocracy" would arise to look after the common good.
Meritocracy is a central political concept in Singapore, due in part to the circumstances surrounding the city-state's rise to independence. Singapore was expelled from neighboring Malaysia in 1965 as a result of the unwillingness of the majority of its population, mostly ethnic Chinese, to accept a "special position" for the self-proclaimed Bumiputra (Malay for "inheritors of the earth"), Malays. The federal Malaysian government had argued for a system which would give special privileges to the Malays as part of their "birthright" as an "indigenous" people. Political leaders in Singapore vehemently protested against this system, arguing instead for the equality of all citizens of Malaysia, with places in universities, government contracts, political appointments, etc., going to the most deserving candidate, rather than to one chosen on the basis of connections or ethnic background. The ensuing animosity between State and Federal governments eventually proved irreconcilable. Singapore was expelled, and became an independent city-state. To this day, Singapore continues to hold up meritocracy as one of its official guiding principles for domestic public policy formulation.
There is criticism with evidence that from within that the increasing stratification of Singaporean society and the creation of an elite class based on a narrow segment of the population as a result of this system has some serious disadvantages. Commentators have also criticized the city-state for not applying this principle uniformly, citing for example the disproportionate influence and presence of the family of the founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in both political and business circles. Although most Singaporeans still agreed that the city-state's tremendous economic success was due in part to its strong emphasis on developing and promoting talented leaders, there are increasing signs that an increasing number of Singaporeans believe that Singapore is becoming an elitist society instead. Defendents claim to the ancient trend of 'A family cannot be rich or poor for more than three generations', suggesting that elitists would eventually and often are replaced by those lower down the hierarchy with frequency. Indeed, many of the top political leaders in Singapore (and also China) tend to come from peasantry backgrounds)while modern peasants boast about their great ancestry.
A 2008 article in International Political Science Review titled "Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore" argues that:
The concept of meritocracy is unstable as its constituent ideas are potentially contradictory. The egalitarian aspects of meritocracy, for example, can come into conflict with its focus on talent allocation, competition, and reward. In practice, meritocracy is often transformed into an ideology of inequality and elitism. In Singapore, meritocracy has been the main ideological resource for justifying authoritarian government and its pro-capitalist orientations. Through competitive scholarships, stringent selection criteria for party candidacy, and high ministerial salaries, the ruling People’s Action Party has been able to co-opt talent to form a “technocratic” government for an “administrative state.”
Another example is the 19th century Finland, which was formally ruled by an autocrat, though in practice governing was exercised by the educated class. Although ancestry and inherited wealth influenced one's educational opportunities, education and not ancestry was the principal requirement for admittance to, and promotion within, the civil service and government. Well into the mid-20th century, academic degrees remained important factors for politicians asking for the electorate's confidence. Likewise, one's military rank in reserves has been a decisive factor on selecting leaders and managers both in public and private sector. Even today, most Finnish managers are amongst those who have attained an either NCO or reserve officer rank during their conscript tour of duty.
Lasting 1,112 years, the Republic of Venice at times used a system based on meritocracy to decide the membership of its ruling council. Each year, citizens were assessed based on the number of merit points earned through their successes — in academia, for works or art, for business ventures, and so on — and the top names were appointed to the council. The council had a role encompassing legislative, judicial and executive functions. They elected a Doge, on the understanding that any councillor who voted to appoint a Doge who took Venice to war and lost would, with that Doge, be put to death.
Although formal meritocracies are uncommon online, informal ones are much more prevalent. They often occur in online games such as MMORPGs where the best players are more likely to become guild leaders or be otherwise influential., although the ability to invest large amounts of time and/or money is also important. This is also the case for many discussion forums, since the most knowledgeable users often have better chances of becoming a moderator.
There is a general tendency among open source projects for meritocracies: The more able a programmer seems to be, the higher their position (albeit informal) will be. The Apache Software Foundation is an example of an (open source) organization which officially claims to be a meritocracy.