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How might we explain the widespread appeal of discourses on corruption? The truth likely remains somewhere deep within the individual and collective dynamics by which people attempt to come to grips with change in their lives, and to construct a meaningful narrative connection between past, present, and future. The power of corruption rhetoric seems to lie in its recognition of the inherent fragility of all human endeavor—indeed, of human bodies. Talking in terms of corruption, for civic republicans, often makes sense of a host of social changes by placing them into a coherent, purposive, and meaningful frame of reference, highlighting past glories, and spurring audiences on to greater things in the future. Corruption accounts, like all political speech, are inherently partial and moralistic, but they are also extremely effective in pointing to the price paid for progress, be it technological, political, or economic. When Adam Smith (1723–1790) boasted, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) that the poorest English laborer lives in material comfort undreamed of by an African king, Rousseau was there to ask about the price paid for this economic "progress," using the language of corruption to frame and reinforce his critique.

But is corruption, however variously defined, always to be lamented? A few scholars have ventured the hypothesis that corruption is necessary, though indeed not sufficient, for such tasks as the smooth operation of an economy. Business practices routinely denounced as "corrupt" may serve a variety of extremely important social and economic functions. Such a view, overtly or not, hearkens back to Bernard Mandeville's (1670–1733) famous dictum that private vices yield public benefits.


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Heidenheimer, A. J., ed. Political Corruption: Readings in Comparative Analysis. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1970.

Heywood, Paul, ed. Political Corruption. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

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Rose-Ackerman, Susan. Corruption: A Study in Political Economy. New York: Academic Press, 1978.

——. Corruption and Government: Causes, Consequences, and Reform. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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Andrew R. Murphy

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshCorruption - Corruption, Civic Republicanism, And Republican Historiography, Political Corruption, Other Contexts, Conclusion, Bibliography