4.2.3. Meritocracy

The idea that rule should be exercised by those who are the best was originally conveyed by the term aristocracy, for which it is the literal meaning of the Greek. Though it is not named for him, aristocracy is often associated with Aristotle, who championed it in his Politics in the third century BC.[1] However the modern understanding of aristocracy, especially since the French revolution in 1789, is no longer associated with individual merit but with the hereditary power of an idle bourgeoisie, whose rule could often more suitably be described as plutocracy (rule by the rich).

The more modern term meritocracy is used to denote a system of rule by which those best qualified to do so, by reason of their personal attributes or their technical expertise.[2] Of all the hierarchical forms of organisation considered so far, meritocracy could be said to hold the most promise, in that it provides a normative basis upon which the most competent representatives of each of the stakeholder groups, rather than necessarily the most powerful, could be afforded the right to lead the governance network.

This conception of a peak body of moral leaders or technical experts is not even so far from the way in which representative democracy functions, whereby the people delegate their power to those representatives who they believe not only share their political preferences, but are also the most capable and well informed in political matters.

Unlike representative democracy of course, there is no democratic process by which the most meritorious candidates are selected. Therefore in order for the principle of merit to prevail over the “law of the jungle” of oligarchy it will be necessary for the rules by which merit is assessed to be either agreed by consensus, or be settled by some other objective means.[3]

The requirement of objectivity rules out the basis upon which Aristotle, a virtue ethicist, assessed merit. For Aristotle, merit was earned by doing virtuous deeds, where the virtuous choice in most cases would be found by pursuing the “Golden Mean” between two extreme ethical alternatives.[4] But there are a variety of alternative and incompatible ethical systems, including deontological, teleological and consequentialist variants, and at least one secular teleological ethical system, Objectivism, which explicitly claims to be objectively valid.[5] No such claim is compatible with the liberal neutrality that allows all to pursue their own conception of the good life, subject only to the observance of the equal rights of others to do the same.[6]

Assuming that some consensual or objective basis for the assessment of merit exists, it will also be necessary for the continuing merit of the incumbent authorities to be periodically measured against the same standard, lest they begin to act with unmeritorious self-regard and the meritocracy thus degenerate into oligarchy, a fate of which Aristotle warned.[7] The IETF as a meritocracy

In the context of Internet governance, the IETF provides an example of an organisation in which merit is assessed using a consensually-agreed standard. Despite its open membership and bottom–up character, the IETF been described as a technical meritocracy (or technocracy) because of the priority that is afforded by the community to the views and preferences of those who have demonstrated their superior technical expertise.[8] In this, the standard of merit that prevails within the IETF mirrors the principle of the Hacker Ethic that “hackers should be judged by their hacking.”[9]

Although the assessment of merit within the IETF is principled, it is inherently imprecise. In other online contexts, less ad hoc metrics for the assessment of merit have been used. For example, on Wikipedia, users are more likely to be promoted to the status of administrator if they can demonstrate the range, extent and quality of their contributions to the project to the Wikipedia community. Although no formal criteria apply, a number of members of the community have established their own metrics for the assessment of applicants’ merit, including the length of time they have been participating and the number of articles of particular types that they have edited.[10]

Even more quantitative measurements of merit (or reputation) are used elsewhere online, as for example on eBay, where each registered user has a feedback score comprised of the total of positive, neutral or negative ratings by other users with whom they have transacted business, and which has been found to have a direct correlation with the selling price of items they sell at auction.[11] Similarly on discussion sites such as Slashdot, a user can earn “karma” by means such as posting comments that other users rate as “insightful” or “interesting.” A higher karma score elevates the user’s privileges on the site.[12]

Whilst most reputation-tracking mechanisms are specific to a particular Internet site or service, there are also those designed to be used across various sites or services that a user might inhabit. For example Playerep is a Web-based reputation-tracking service which allows players of online games to rate each other on factors such as competency, knowledge, fairness and sociability.[13]

More relevant to the IGF, there are also products designed for online deliberation and collaboration, such as the Dialog Dashboard, which incorporate the facility for participants to attribute reputation points to one another based on their contributions to the discussion process. Unchat is a similar product which allows contributors to choose which of them should be granted moderation privileges (or have them revoked) based on their contribution to the discussion as it occurs. Both of these products will be revisited at Section

All of the forms of meritocracy described here are notable in that the process by which the recognition of merit is bestowed is not a unique event, but a conditional and ongoing one, thus fulfilling Aristotle’s admonition that a meritocracy must be guarded against its tendency to degrade into a mere oligarchy. However, therein lies the problem with each of the meritocracies described (although it is not so much a problem, as an ontological issue): at what point does a meritocracy in which positions of authority are assigned through a democratic or consensual process, cease to be hierarchical at all, and simply become a democratic or consensual organisation?

For consistency, that dividing line must be reached when the power of the meritocracy is conditioned upon the ongoing consent of the governed. Thus if criteria for the assessment of merit are at first decided by consensual means and the composition of the meritocracy is thereafter only to be determined by reference to those agreed criteria, the organisation may be described as an hierarchical meritocracy. If the criteria are subject to ongoing review by either consensual or democratic means, then the organisation is more accurately described as democratic or consensual.

By this definition, it may be concluded that the IETF, even if it is a meritocracy, is not in fact an hierarchical one, as the criteria by which technical merit is assessed are informal and subject to continual re-evaluation by the community. The IGF as a meritocracy

This is not however to say that there is no organisation in the context of Internet governance which is both meritocratic and hierarchical (that is, the structure of which is not subject to displacement by consensual or democratic means). Take the example of the IGF’s Advisory Group, a steering committee tasked with the preparation of the substantive agenda and programme for the IGF’s annual meetings. Rather than through a democratic or consensual process, this group was appointed through the hierarchical power of the United Nations.[14]

Unfortunately the question of how the Advisory Group’s merit was assessed is somewhat obscure, as the process by which its members were selected was not public. Nonetheless as the selection process did not avail itself of (what is, let us accept for now)[15] the inherent normative force of a democratic or consensual process, and as the United Nations has no legitimate authority to unilaterally prescribe the composition of a multi-stakeholder group,[16] some other objective normative basis must be presented for the attribution of merit to those selected, if the Advisory Group is to be considered as anything other than an oligarchy.

There are two possible such criteria by which the merit of the members of a multi-stakeholder governance network formed by hierarchical means might be assessed. First (and most fundamental) is the extent to which they embody the values that that stakeholder group brings to the governance network. Second is the extent to which they contribute to the substantive work of the governance network. Taking these in turn:

A fundamental difficulty with the selection by hierarchical means of a meritocracy to lead a governance network is thus exposed. Democratic and consensual processes aside, there is no objective basis for adequately assessing the merit of candidates to lead a governance network engaged in the development of public policy. Thus in the end, although hierarchical meritocracy has come much closer than bureaucracy and oligarchy, it is still not quite an appropriate organisational form for a governance network.



Aristotle, Politics (1943)


The latter is more specifically termed technocracy.


As an aside, why objective? Simply because a meritocracy subjectively so declared by hierarchical means, and an oligarchy with no normative basis for its composition, are indistinguishable to the governed; each is equally arbitrary and hegemonic. If an authority is to establish a meritocracy that can be properly so called regardless of the lack of consent of the governed, then it must be able to demonstrate that merit by objective means.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (2000)


Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (1964)


See Section


Aristotle, Politics (1943), 138–139


Mueller, Milton, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace (2002), 91


Levy, Steven, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (2001), 43


See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_adminship.


Resnick, Paul, Zeckhauser, Richard, Swanson, John, & Lockwood, Kate, The Value of Reputation on eBay: A Controlled Experiment (2006)


Froomkin, A M, Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace (2003), 863–867


See http://www.playerep.com/.


See Section 5.2.1.


See Section 4.3.


See the introduction to this section and Section


That is, the merit of citizen representation for government, of market efficiency for the private sector, and of transnational substantive values for civil society.


For example, Dubois, David & Rothwell, William, The Competency Toolkit (2000).