I was reminded of this topic by an article, written by Rory Sutherland, entitled ‘Don’t look for merit in meritocracy.‘ In it, Sutherland argues that much of what people consider themselves to have earned, is in fact something which they have inherited. This is true, but Sutherland is wrong to suggest that this means there is no merit in meritocracy; it would be more accurate to say that the economically conservative/libertarian view of ‘meritocracy’ is, quite simply, not a meritocracy.
In a meritocracy, people succeed based on merit. Now, it is true that some of merit is genetically based, and thus ‘unearned.’ However, genetics alone will not result in merit. But Sutherland’s other point, regarding the role which inheritance of other things plays in success, is absolutely valid. And there are numerous other reasons why a libertarian system will always fail to be a meritocracy, which boil down to human psychology.
For example, two people might be born with comparable intelligence, but one to a rich family, the other to a poor family. The former will likely receive better nutrition and early education, followed by being sent to high-quality private schools (or well-funded public schools, since schools are often funded via property taxes); the latter will likely be sent to an underfunded public school. In college, the former will likely be able to focus exclusively on studies, while the latter will likely have to work at least part-time, while still incurring more loan debt than the former. A rich family is also more likely to have useful family friends; unfortunately, in some cases, your qualifications mean less than whom you know, for determining your success.
In general, nature does not result in a meritocracy. To give everyone what they are actually worth requires careful assessment and response, and it will not happen naturally.