As a citizen of the USA, I was raised and educated into the idea that democracy was the best of all possible systems. I was also taught that everyone was "created equal", and that it was important to treat people fairly. These things sound so good; they made me want them to be true, and of course, since we're told these are the values the culture we live in operates under, and that we are a part of that culture, to object is to object to ourselves in some sense.
But after 50-odd years of observing what actually goes on in our society, as opposed to what we are told is the way it operates; 50-odd years of seeing supposedly core principles cast aside like so much debris; 50-odd years of legislative erosion of the constitution... I'm really pretty sure that there are problems with these ideas that aren't separable from the practical implementation of them.
First, let me quickly address the well-ingrained platitude from the US declaration of independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". This is simply untrue. I was not created equal with Einstein; not equal to Mozart; not equal to Hawking (and he not equal to me); not equal to Gandhi, not equal to people who were born without sight or legs or hearing... I could go on for pages.
What is probably closer to what society should try for is something along the lines of "All shall be afforded equal opportunity, and what they make of it is their own affair." Because that <em>is</em> fair, and accounts for — instead of denying — the very real inequalities from one human being to the next. Bottom line: We are not all created equal. Period.
Democracy is, we are taught, that thing that gives each person an equal vote in matters of import to the community, to society, to the group. So the question we need to answer is, does that actually embody fairness?
The problem is that we are not equal. If we have a nuclear power plant apparently ready to go online, and we send a group of inspectors out to try to ensure that it is ready, we'd probably accept the vote of the majority, or even require that the vote be unanimous, given the fact that should the plant fail, hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lives might be at stake.
So who do we allow to be inspectors? Experts, of course. Not you or I, but people who know nuclear power. These people are not equal to you and I in this matter, they are far superior to us. They share our interest, but they do not share our qualifications. That's what makes them the right people to vote on this. You wouldn't want me on that decision making group, even though I'm far from a simpleton, because I wouldn't know how to tell if the plant was safe, or not. Bluntly, I am unequal to the task, and it would not be fair to you, to society in general, to put me in that group.
Now, if a vote comes up in town as to how to implement a new water supply, again, you don't want me voting on it. You want experts. People who know water; people who have a handle on the financing; people who understand the environment and infrastructure issues, etc. People with the appropriate merits. I'm qualified to vote on the choice for portioning out taxes equal to the proposed cost once that has been arrived at, but not the how.
These examples demonstrate that the more important something is, the more important it is to see to it that the people making the decisions are not the rank and file, but instead, qualified people who are experts in the field. Not only is this likely to return the best results, it is fair in that those people who have worked to become experts in the field are those to whom such leverage should actually fall. Not to someone who has worked on the grill line at a McJob!
Yet: Democracy is a system that allows any two uninformed people to outvote an expert; worse, in the USA, this idea is applied in a social climate that is notoriously short on actual experts.
The term "meritocracy" is often taken to mean a system where people attain power by virtue of lineage or other means unrelated to the meaning of the word "merit."
I'm going to use "meritocracy" here in a more obvious, more basic sense: A system where those people who have demonstrated expertise in an area may provide voting input in that area. I'm very comfortable saying that such people, generally speaking, are more likely to have greater merit than a person who has no, or is unable to demonstrate, expertise.
So for instance, in such a system, ideally, members of congress would have to pass a test showing that they have read and understand the constitution. That they know what "shall make no law" means; what "shall not be infringed" means; what "enumerated powers" means; what "ex post facto" means, and so forth. I'd also like them to pass tests on critical thinking, basic logic, and the consequences of short-term thinking.
Why, I ask myself, is this society so hell-bent upon allowing people whose qualifications seem to be little more than than having shouted "save the children" from the pulpit, perhaps also lacking obvious skeletons in the closet, into office? This is essentially nothing more than the result of a popularity contest. It seems broken... because it is. So why? I really have no answer. I'd much rather see a form of meritocracy as I suggest above. I think it would be immeasurably superior.
The system we have now is patently unfair to us, the citizens. We have almost entirely unqualified people making decisions in congress, the executive and the judiciary. That assertion is borne out by the facts: The result has been ex post facto law, the complete inversion of the commerce clause, rights infringed, forbidden laws created, the move from the right to not incriminate one's self to the right to be subject to torture until one says what the interrogator wishes to hear, numerous laws that impinge on the individual's ability to make informed personal or consensual choices...
Clearly, if we want fair and rational results, we need to change the system. That implies changing the people too, but if the system itself isn't changed so that it will actually work, changing the people won't help.