Determining The Source of Corruption; The Government or The People?

Absolutism was the basis for France’s government preceding the revolution.  With ideas of the Enlightenment and the witnessing of the American Revolution, many French citizens started processing these revolutionary ideas and began executing the task of trying to implement these ideas into their own society.  While removing the current King from power seemed like the best and obvious step toward a better society, it was unclear what the aspirations for the new government were.  Through the course of the Revolution, French Society dealt with multiples forms of governments including an absolute monarch, a constitutional monarch, and a Republic along with a few other types.  Though what is clear, is that each of those three began to corrupt over time (or so it was viewed by the citizens), but why?  If each government was meant to embody the wants and desires of the people why were they so dysfunctional?

I have been researching Robespierre for my paper, and he was one of the key pieces in the installation of a Republic.  Now while a Republic was the government he wished for French society, it was not the one he ended up creating.  Robespierre was a man who sought to bring equality to men and let them be the basis for the new government.  What he realized over time though is that people aren’t innately righteous enough to govern a country without someone above them to control them, thus Robespierre became the exact thing that he had opposed.  Here, a man who originally opposed the death penalty and wished for a republic ended up establishing a dictatorship in which he murdered thousands of people in a period that has come to be known as “The Reign of Terror”.  In the course of two years this man fell to corruption, or did he?  Was he actually corrupt or was he just recognizing that a decentralized government does not possess the necessary power to govern.  Corrupt is often tossed around as a way to define something that is simply unjust or opposed by society.  Corruption is a view of the people, it is merely an opinion.  Something thought of as corrupt cannot be pinpointed as a fact.  So maybe something thought of as corrupt isn’t really corrupt, but is a misinterpretation of corrupt people blinded by some sense liberty who wish to benefit themselves not society.  Now I am not saying that people shouldn’t be entitled to freedom, but I find it hard to describe something as corrupt when it is only a matter of opinion.  Every person is biased due to their own opinions and that bias corrupts every individual indefinitely, and that is why no person can be trusted to govern, but how can we trust multiple corrupt people to govern?   “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton).  History seems to prove this notion that those who possess absolute power grow too imperialistic, but history also seems to support the idea that those who start off without absolute power end up falling to “corrupt” absolutism.  Any government is a very unstable organization, but to me the only one that seems to keep society out of chaos is one where the national government possesses the power to maintain peace, but what is the right amount of power?

While modern political ideologies seem to oppose the ideas of absolutism, it is evident that any government is susceptible to fall to absolutism at anytime.  History seems to repeat this perpetual cycle of governing, where when an absolute monarch becomes so corrupt that the people revolt and implement a new government that eventually falls to corruption and once again the people revolt and establish a new ruling force.  It is so hard to avoid corruption when this “corruption” often  seems to be the only resolution.  Absolutism is unstable, but so is every other government, but people fear to admit that absolutism might be the only resolution because they fear for their own liberties.  I’m just wondering how much longer it is until our country falls to “corruption”.  Many people are upset with the current situation of the government but how can we expect things to change when our own leader doesn’t possess the power to make a difference.  We are reluctant to give our leader more power because we wish to maintain our rights.  But are we so self-centered that we are more concerned with keeping our rights than helping society as a whole?  That is why society can never implement a functional government, because the people are corrupted themselves and when something opposes their beliefs they are quick to judge and blame that as the source of corruption when it really lies within themselves(That is my answer to the question I propose in the first paragraph, “If each government was meant to embody the wants and desires of the people why were they so dysfunctional?”).

Now please don’t think I am just bashing human nature when I say this, I merely just sought to express some thought provoking ideas, and in fact when I sat down to write this I had no idea it would escalate to this extent.  Ultimately I challenge you to think about this,  Where does corruption lie, within the structure of the government, or with the structure of the mind?

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5 Responses to Determining The Source of Corruption; The Government or The People?

  1. Heather Milke says:

    Matt, I think you bring up a very interesting point. Think this actually has a lot to do with the ideas of Hobbes and Locke. They both had opposing ideas as to whether or not the corruption lies in the people or in the government. There opinions on this matter were based on what they believed human nature to be and determined who they thought should rule. I honestly don’t think that there is a definitive answer to this question. I think that it is very dependent on the situation at hand. For example, after the American Revolution, the founding fathers were so against a monarchy or any one person in power, so after a little trial and error, they developed a government where there was a separation of powers and checks and balances. The people believed that the King of England was being a tyrant, but the King thought that he was just doing his job in trying to pay back debts and control his empire. Where the corruption comes from really depends on whose point of view you chose to look at the situation from. I think that corruption in government can come from either the government OR the people depending on the situation, the political history of the nation, the culture, and many other factors.

  2. mcleverley2015 says:

    The government, any government, is made of people.
    Over several thousand years (longer, technically) we’ve tried many forms of government, and none have allowed man to perfectly live in harmony with himself and those around him. If you look closely, you can see the flaws in every structure of government, and also what we call corruption. The structure changes; the patterns, the flaws and corruption remains, simply because the people don’t change. From that, you could say that the flaw lies in the people.
    You could then look at the varying levels of corruption in different governments throughout history. The people don’t change; only the government and its structure changes, and with it changes the results, the corruption. With that, you could say that the flaw lies in the government.

  3. Dr. K says:


    It seems to me that you’re wrestling with the same issue that Madison did in that excerpt from The Federalist Papers that was in the DBQ. Government, he says, needs to be powerful enough to control the people, but it also not so powerful that it can’t control itself. Separation of Powers was his solution: assume people are naturally self-interested, and construct the government so that (in his words) “ambition counteracts ambition”–i.e., as president and Congress each try to increase their own power, they’ll end up blocking each other and keeping the government from becoming too powerful. So it’s interesting that Heather mentioned separation of powers in her response.

    Of course, it can also lead to gridlock, as we see in Washington now. The problem is that even the Founders assumed a certain level of civi virtue among people, a willingness to put the public good first. Do we still have that?

  4. Sam says:

    I like these ideas. I never really thought of corruption as something we created in our mind, that is just implemented as a means for a more stable form of government, and that it cycles through corruption and revolt. However, I had a question going through my head while I read through this. Is corruption always just an opinion? Admittedly I have a different idea of what is and what isn’t corrupt, and those ideas may differ from me and a colleague. But if the majority of society, if not all of society believes something is corrupt doesn’t that make it so? I’m not sure, I just thought it was an interesting thing to think about. As for Robespierre, I have mixed feelings about him. In a way, I do feel as if he fell to corruption. Killing is almost never an answer, but it may have been crucial to the rebuilding of the French. I do think he went overboard. The top two classes at the time had lived with an unfair advantage over the third class. But not all deserved what came to them. Overall I agree with your argument, and I like many of the points you made. You intention to put questions in my head was very successful, and I’m sure ill be thinking about this for a good portion of my day.

    • mskolnick2015 says:

      Hi Sam,
      You present a very thought provoking question. I do believe to an extent, that corruption is an opinion of society, and that it is not always a fact to all. I believe it is the goal for any government to pursue the needs and desires of the citizens within its jurisdiction, and if a government fails to act in the interests of its people than it not doing its purpose and is thus corrupt. So I guess it would be accurate to say that if the majority of society is not satisfied with the government than it is one that is corrupt. A government’s role in society is to maintain/restore stability, and if the government is only introducing more chaos than it is not serving its main purpose. Chaos derives from discord which starts when a government doesn’t attempt to aid its citizens. That is why I conclude that Robespierre and his “Reign of Terror” failed to bring stability. His government was only an attempt to please the radical sans-culottes, which was not the majority of the population; it did not work for the interests of the majority. And then to systematically kill any people in opposition was obviously not the best way to eliminate chaos. When I initially wrote this post I had just begun my research on Robespierre, now having concluded my research and written a paper, I would strongly say that Robespierre was indeed corrupted. He was a hypocrite that strayed from his original beliefs, such as how he went from being a man who opposed the death penalty to one who murdered thousands at the guillotine. He was also deluded by this concept of the general will, originally advocated by Rousseau during The Enlightenment, in which he believed that there needs to be some unifying consensus amongst the population in order for society to function. The issue with this is that, it is nearly impossible to find a common belief that will be shared by the majority of the population, and you can’t simply kill off those in opposition. A good government would use opposition to create a better system to satisfy as many people as possible. Corruption at it’s source is an interpretation of the people, but if the majority of the people accept this belief than at that point it can be considered accurate to call the government corrupt. A government is only good, so long as it pleases its citizens, once satisfaction deteriorates than the government is corrupt and will lead to revolt and start this cycle over once again. Seeing as how ideas are always being changed, modified, and perfected; is it at all possible to create a government that will indefinitely satisfy its citizens?

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