IMHO, merit badges were (long ago) more about the Adult Association Method . Advancement was secondary and perhaps a misnomer. In half or more of your merit badges, you were being introduced to new knowledge and skills to advance yourself in life later.
The scout had to obtain the blue card and contact info from his Scoutmaster. The scout had to contact the Merit Badge Counselor himself, often more than once, and occasionally other more available MBC's. Council/District had to provide qualified counselors. My Archery MBC competed internationally, Firemanship was a NJ Fire Chief/Fire Warren, Electricity was a Westinghouse engineer, Electronics was a design engineer for ENIAC project and RCA. These men are spending time with me? How cool was that.
Some scout associations in he world do not use advancement as a method, especially for their mid teen and later programs. The youth I've met are fine with that.
@gblotter, you may have missed some of my musings on the subject, but I'm of the opposite perspective. Not only do I favor rank advancement, I favor granting direct-contact adults the privilege of working on rank advancement while they serve our scouts. First class rank should be a goal for all SMs and a requirement for any member of the national advancement team, and no member of that who hasn't earned Star, Life, or Eagle may draft policy regarding that rank.
A lot of us sit in judgement of MB programs, but our only evidence is our boys who go through them. I've actually been quite pleased with the experiences our scouts have had with their various counselors (be it district, camp, or MB pow-wows) - rarely needing to complain about it. But, I do wonder if I missed something that could be caught if adults were motivated to try and master the same skills as the boys.