I like to play with superlatives. I want a government that pretends to be rightly-guided by the most sacred morals and ideals, but in reality is filled with fat cats who only care for themselves. However, the people must not know about it; they know about corruption in other countries, and the clear majority of people truly believe that their country is above that. So how far can I go in my government's corruption?


The general era is something we would recognise as the 15th-16th century. There's steel and gunpowder, but no steam power. There's a literary tradition stretching back a thousand years, but few people are literate. There are religious beliefs but they are not part of the state; in its place is a state philosophy that might as well be a religion. People are steadily growing sceptical of said philosophy, but for now the government (while ostensibly encouraging critical thinking) suppresses diverging thought, passing it off as misguided and/or dangerous.

The ideal

The government, ruling over a hundred million people of many different cultures in a nation the size of Kazakhstan, works on the basis of the following philosophy: rule is only by the virtuous, and every virtuous person will end up ruling. There's imperial exams taken by every young man and a few bright women (the society is still quite sexist), and those with the best results will end up with roles in the bureaucracy. There's layers upon layers of bureaucrats that report to one another, and at the very top is a council of 52 supreme officers, along with a supreme emperor whose only political power is appointing and dismissing those officers (and giving them supreme moral guidance). The position of supreme emperor is for life, but not hereditary; when one dies, the successor is whoever got the very best score in next year's imperial exams, from a different province in the country (rotating between all the provinces).

Now a lot hinges upon the fairness of these exams, so one of the lowest positions in the bureaucracy is overseeing them. That means that the turnover rate is high among the examiners, so there's little opportunity for corruption to take root there.

Every political position of meaning is part of the bureaucracy; hereditary power transfer is virtually non-existent. Outside the state, power structures exist in the form of religious institutions, and private commercial enterprises. But the church is not quite an authority; the state philosophy is religiously pluralistic and states that all gods live together in one pantheon, leaving open which one is the head god (if any). And this is long before corporations became the lobbying influence we have today; a few figures like Jakob Fugger exist but most businesses are small and family-owned.


That's the theory. Everything stated in the previous section is either accurate or popularly perceived as such. So where can I add corruption? The easiest place is among the bureaucrats. There's so many layers and departments, and people from layer n are generally appointed and dismissed by those from layer n+1. They all socialise with one another so they can get an idea of which of potential candidates for a position would be susceptible to take bribes, and then only promote those people; effectively shutting the true idealists out of the administration beyond a certain layer. Impeachment procedures are rare since people in higher stations are assumed to be more virtuous.

But I want to go beyond that. I am looking for the most effective methods by which the highest officials can evade all scrutiny and turn their backs on the doctrine of virtue deciding position. I want ways to maintain the illusion of social mobility, compatible with the state as described, that allow for large-scale embezzlement and self-enrichment by the powerful.

Take this in a society that is not democratic and without mass media, but also not a totalitarian government that can just make people disappear and it lacks means of communication faster than a horseback courier. How corrupt can I make the country, while everyone still believes that it is not corrupt; and in what ways?

Concrete question

What measures can the government officials and powerful people in general take in this country, to disproportionally enrich themselves, without people at large perceiving their country as corrupt, given the society and history as described? Average citizens who are not closely involved with politics should be able to reasonably think that their leaders are really virtuous and not at all enriching themselves.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Possible real-world inspiration: The Catholic Church. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp Could you elaborate? $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ It's an organization which maintains the appearance to be based on virtue (it's literally their brand) and being a meritocracy, but they are very good at keeping scandals under cover. And it is an organisation which is even larger than the administrations of many countries. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "perceived as such" part makes this very opinion-based. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Nov 12, 2020 at 17:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm we may be going a little off-topic here, but the downfall of Catholic Church in several countries in the early XVI century could be in part attributed to "Ninety-five Theses" distributed with the use of printing press. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Nov 12, 2020 at 19:55

6 Answers 6


Unclear Rubrics

The way to check if an exam is corrected fairly is using a rubric. This says what the correct answers are, and exactly what you need to write to get full marks. This lets the marker justify their scores and lets unhappy examinees appeal with some degree of rigor. When I am unhappy with my score I point to the rubric and say "I lost marks for X but it wasn't in the rubric!".

The way to corrupt an exam is by having either no rubric, so the marker can just make up reasons someone got full marks after seeing their script. Or you have a rubric that is so vague they you can do the same.

I suggest there be several layers of increasingly vague rubrics. For example for the essay question Rubric #1 is basic spelling and grammar. #2 is basic reasoning skills, and so on until #10 is something like

Moral character conducive to the proliferation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens of this great country under God.

Extra points for overblown language.

Rubric #1 is employed by level 1 bureaucrats. They chuck out anyone with bad spelling and grammar, and pass the good scripts upstairs to where level 2 bureaucrats apply Rubric #2. The first few levels work well and ensure the bureaucracy is filled with competent people. It also gives the impression the system is fair, since most people only see the first few levels.

Level 10 exams are rare, since you have to pass exams 1-9 to even sit level 10. Every level 10 exam is marked by the emperor. There is so much room for interpretation about what "moral virtue" means that the rigor disappears and the emperor can appoint whoever they want.

There is also an option to skip the first few levels of assessment if a sufficiently virtuous candidate is found. This is the story when the Chancellor's deaf-mute second cousin the in-law gets appointed Minister of Agriculture. After all, you can teach spelling and grammar but you cannot teach being a good person.

From then on we have the usual problem that no one ever sees the Minister on the street and all their public engagements are highly choreographed for maximum virtue signalling. There is no way for the common man to figure out on their own if the Minister is corrupt or not.

There might still be a basic literacy requirement. I don't think this is a problem. It certainly lines up with the real world where corrupt people in power have to be (a) smart enough to get into power and (b) smart enough to not seem corrupt.

  • $\begingroup$ Sounds good, with the vast majority being righteous and perceived as such, with only the "Top-Scoring" cadets having potential to rise up and only them being affected by the corruption. $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2020 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Good solution for corrupting exams. Though makes me wonder how many level 10 examiners are out there to review the millions of exams turned in each year - unless you reserve the higher levels for those already in the bureaucracy, and make them take more complicated (and fuzzy) exams before every potential promotion. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ Is “conman man” a slip of the keyboard or a statement on society?? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm The idea is you sit a level 1 exam, and it's marked by other level 1 people. If you pass you get to sit level 2 and that's marked by level 2 people. And so on. The number of potential markers goes down, but so does the number of exams to correct. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 12, 2020 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs Typo I'm afraid. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 12, 2020 at 16:07

Education. Private tutors etc rigorously prepare the children of high-ranked members to score as highly as possible on the tests. They know what the expected "correct" answers will be and the tests vary little from year to year so practicing on prior papers is very effective. Note they don't learn anything useful. Just how to ace the exams.

Combine this with a bit of "leaning" on people to go easy or hard on the correct candidates. This gives you hereditary power that over time concentrates in a few families no matter how competent or not individual members are.

Daron's answer already covered vague exams. Take a look at this for a real world example of just how corrupt these things can be: https://metro.co.uk/2017/09/20/could-you-pass-this-test-given-to-black-people-registering-to-vote-in-america-in-1964-6941338/

As to the perception thing, that's easy. You keep the corruption to the higher levels and dress everything up. You control the media, the police, the intelligence services.

Anyone accusing you of corruption is a seditious traitor and needs to be "sent away for re-education".

  • $\begingroup$ Sheesh, that article horrifies me. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm One reason I shared it is more people need to know about it. That stuff was real and in use only 60 years ago. People are alive today who were involved in overturning it....and in implementing it. Some of the people who wrote and administered those exams are still alive and voting in the USA... $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Nov 12, 2020 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ But it's a good answer, except for the bit "media, police, and intelligence services". This is a pre-industrial era, there's no media (no printing press), police system is unorganised, and intelligence services not nearly as powerful as the modern equivalents. Also I don't think re-education camps are a thing when the state can't be totalitarian enough. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 12, 2020 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm "media" takes many forms. No printing press but you do have bards, storytellers, legends and ballads. You have monuments, statues, paintings, even buildings and place names. You have announcements and town criers. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Nov 12, 2020 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand I agree that informers, police, spies, etc. may not be as organised or centralized, but they do exist and will generally act to protect authority. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Nov 12, 2020 at 15:49

Require collateral to enter or advance in the bureaucracy.

Serving the people isnt just a job for our committed public servants, but a promise and a commitment to the doctrine of trust and loyalty. Everyone who wants to join this wonderful institution needs to offer some asset as collateral in return for their service and loyalty to their branch of the government.

Externally - "every member of the government has given the deed to their house as collateral in case they cheat or steal from us, I wouldnt steal in this case so our government is obviously very virtuous!"

Practically - whistle blowing is disloyalty to your boss, so any jealous employee trying to smear their boss for selfish reasons obviously will lose their collateral. This should be made very clear on orientation. They'll die homeless and hungry if they cast the government in a bad light, and it will only embarrass their boss or bosses boss at most.

Advancing in the bureaucracy requires more collateral, if you have no more wealth, you need to share a family secret, something worth blackmailing you over (eg a signed letter that your brother confessed to cheating on his partner, true or not, or a detailed account of how your father swindled huge wealth from the masses. Anything embarrassing. Make it up if you need to.) and give that as collateral. It's needed for any promotion. It's to ensure your loyal to your government.

Each promotion requires new information more scandalous than the last.

By the time you get to the upper rungs of the corruption, you've signed letters stating your spouse is kidnapping and eating children, you father burnt down churches, and your children were gifts from satan. Your superiors have so much dirt on you they could get your former friends to burn your entire family at the stake. Any allegations of corruption by a whistleblower can be met with enough evidence to brutality destroy the families reputation enough to dismiss or bury the allegations.

So long as the masses are fed and sheltered and entertained - you could take everything else of value for yourselves.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea, but wouldn't the confession system break down trust in government as soon as people are ousted for it? Rule is by the virtuous: if any homosexual, cheater or swindler did end up in high ranks, then the system has already failed. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 12, 2020 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm they'd be caught at the lower levels, because the higher you go, the less likely you are to betray the system. That they were caught can easily be spun as the system working to expose cheats. This is basically the technique nxvm and scientology used. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 12, 2020 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm actually on further thought the nxvm blackmails were family first, then personal. That's probably a better fit here anyway for the reason you gave. I've edited. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 12, 2020 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm What's wrong with homosexuals? $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Apr 21, 2023 at 10:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NoName don't ask me, ask the conservative corrupt fantasy supergovernment $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Apr 21, 2023 at 12:28

Corruption is the merit.

You know, that might be the answer - to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That's a trick that never seems to fail.

-- Catch-22

Merit is not, despite the ideal of a meritocracy, some natural, physical constant that can be determined empirically. The government, through culture, media, education, religion, and tradition, determines what is meritorious. Philosophers talk about government virtues or they get put on the banned list. Poets who want the aristocracy to support them flatter them. Teachers and preachers uphold the traditional ideals or else the community will turn on them as renegades.

So there's no need for the merit your meritocracy measures to be the merit we, the readers, would expect or want them to measure. Maybe merit is a measure of how much money you can bring in (and never you mind where it comes from), or how much your farms and workshops can produce in a year. Maybe merit is a popularity contest, and your people think of buying votes through bread and circuses to be meritorious (after all, it makes people happy). Perhaps your definition of merit is ideological purity, or loyalty to a ruling party, or to God.

The key is that, in addition to rigorously testing officials, the meritocracy also vigorously pushes its idea of merit onto the population.

  • $\begingroup$ They keyword is that your income measures your "CONTRIBUTION TO SOCIETY". $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 12, 2020 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ That is really creative, I like it. It only becomes a bit difficult when this country feels so elevated above its neighbouring countries precisely because those countries are "totally corrupt" which the empire "most certainly isn't". So the merit of corruption needs to be specific to the empire; when other countries do it it's a sin. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 13, 2020 at 8:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm "Corruption" is a pretty broad term. (Are we talking about graft? Nepotism? Favoritism to a particular group? Backroom deals between power brokers?) It wouldn't be hard to draw a distinction between two practices where we would both see as corrupt, but your nation preaches that one is virtuous and the other not. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Nov 13, 2020 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence You're right. My vision was focused on the self-enrichment and the literal corruption of the values of merit = right; but that can be done through many different ways, some of which may still be compatible with the state philosophy. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Nov 13, 2020 at 10:07

How Should Corruption Be Quanitified?

To measure how corrupt a government can get, and compare it to different measurements, I think we need a way to quantify corruption. I think this approach might work : what % of resources (quantified as GDP), allocated to be spent on public good, actually makes it to that work.

So, for some examples : out of every \$1,000 allocated to schools, only \$10 makes it to the teacher's salary - the government is $1 - ({10 \over 1000})$ = 99% corrupt.

With That In Mind, There Are Some Obvious Ways to Scale This

There is a joke about corruption -- a bureaucrat is charged with repairing a road. He gets two bids : the first bidder asks \$100 to do the job. The second bidder asks \$1,100 to do the job. The bureaucrat asks the second bidder why he's so high. The 2nd bidder says : \$500 for you, \$500 for me, and \$100 to hire the first bidder.

There exists, I believe, a minimum cost to provide public services. But government and contractor peers can charge any amount of premium on top of that. The bigger the ledger of acquisitions becomes, the harder it is to scrutinize any one particular transaction, and the harder it becomes to prove that a single proven case of corruption is systemic, instead of an outlier.

At any given year, the government needs to appear to be delivering the same amount of service. So, for a while you can increase corruption by increasing the amount of resources you allocate from the people (taxes + inflation) : increasing the cost of the government's services, without providing any new service.

You can get creative with how you tax the people : income taxes are most obvious. Less obvious are sales taxes, head taxes, property taxes, tolls, rents, fees, or inflationary spending (printing extra money - the people who can't get themselves a raise to offset the diluted purchasing power of the money are, in a way, the one's paying a tax -- usually the poorest people).

Taxing the people has a peak upper limit where nearly all of society is working all their waking hours to earn, after taxes, just barely enough to keep them healthy enough to work tomorrow.

Managed Decline

After taxes have peaked, government can then gradually reduce the service being provided. As long as service reduction is in tiny increments, it's not shocking enough to cause people to clearly motivate people to seek a life somewhere else.

You can make small substitutions : cheapen labor costs for the services you provide by outsourcing jobs, side-stepping your own environmental laws by getting your services from countries with no such laws, cutting non-administrative staff, rationing


Between raising taxes and gradually reduced services, a government can easily hit 100% corruption.

First, maybe we need to change our scale, since really corrupt governments are going to be between 99.9% and 100% corrupt. Let's just count the number of nines after 99% for these extreme cases. A 99.9% corrupt government is 1C. A 99.99999% corrupt government is 5C.

Maybe we need a different metric for really corrupt governments : percentage of potential GDP trickling down to the people, where potential GDP (pGDP) includes off-the-books activity like building your own wagon, farming, mending clothes, and so on. How much bigger than GDP is pGDP? You can press all working-age adults into service for about a 60% increase; press traditional home keeping roles into service, for another 100% increase, so pGDP $\approx$ 2.6 $\times$ GDP

There's a limit. People have minimal requirements : enough food (2,000 calories per day) to keep going, some water, sleep (about 8 hours per day), and housing. Land costs nothing for a government that can seize it, so the real minimum requirement is whatever it costs for 2,000 calories and the lost labor of 8 hours of sleep (33% of a 24 hour day). And government corruption is = $1 - ({servicesprovided \over pGDP})$. If a government provides nothing of value, let services provided = 1

Trying It Out

Let's assign a value of GDP, so that we can look at some numbers. Let's say our corrupt government has a GDP of 1 million Generic Currency Units (GCU).

A totally corrupt government, providing nothing of value, forcing all able-bodied people to work 40-hour weeks (23% of 7 $\times$ 24-hour days), and taxing all of that effort through various means is $1 - ({1 \over {0.23 \times 2.6 \times 1,000,000}}) = $ 99.999% (3C) corrupt.

A less corrupt government, allowing the young to go to school and the old to retire, and allowing the people to keep their cultural traditions of half the workforce staying at home to take care of the young and old, but still taxing everything out of a 40-hour work week is $1 - ({1 \over {0.23 \times 1,000,000}}) = $ still 99.999% (3C) corrupt.


A government requiring all able-bodied people to work all waking hours (16 $\times$ 7 = 112) (66% of the week) for the government's benefit and receiving nothing in return is $1 - ({1 \over {0.66 \times 2.6 \times 1,000,000}}) = $ 99.9999% (4C) corrupt.

Once people start starving to death, or dying because they fell asleep at the grinder, rebellion isn't far away.

I would suggest 4C is as corrupt as any government can become, by any means, before things fall apart. At 4C corruption has become so bad that people are literally being worked to death and getting no benefit or relief from their rulers. I believe this is a hard limit because even if the populous still believes in the government, they are ceasing to exist due to malnutrition and exhaustion.

There’s a television show, ‘Poldark’ that attempts to demonstrate these conditions in 1770s Britain.


Meritocratic Governments are VERY easy to corrupt

As a general rule, people who want power will gravitate to where power exists unless some force prevents them from doing so. In the case of democracies and monarchies, the most power hungry members of society are prevented from rising up to the top echelons of power by the electoral process or line of succession respectively. However, any government that allows its members to self-select is much less resistant to corruption because instead of using a system designed to filter corruption out, you have a system designed to filter corruption in.

In a meritocracy, the question always boils down to "How do you define Merit". Because this question is answered by the Government, the answer always eventually transitions to "Whoever the government says has Merit."

Because the government decides who is worthy to be a member, existing members will typically select new members based on who will be the smallest threat their own power rather than who can actually do the job best. So if you are a slightly corrupt leader, you will need to bring in new members who are at least as corrupt as you to make sure that they don't whistleblow you. This creates a sort of natural selection scenario where fitness is defined by a thirst for power and lack of ethics. So, the kinds of unethical things the government is willing to will perpetually grow, but never shrinks.

This kind of Corruption can be see in the Roman Praetorian Guard where after just a few generations of letting Praetorians hand pick whoever they deemed the best of the best, they were extorting the government for salaries and bonuses worth over 20 times a normal soldier's pay, they were assassinating their own emperors and manipulating the line of imperial succession, and basically doing whatever the heck they wanted because they all agreed that they could... and this is just what can happen when a small subsection of your government practices hand-picking new members.

But It Won't Last Long Enough For The General Population to Notice

In the 15th-16th Century, most people had very little idea about what happened outside of their own little town or neighborhood, but as much as there was less technology for spreading information, there was also less technology for spreading misinformation; so, what is "true" in this world is whatever you are told by another human being... and the only way to find the truth between two conflicting people is to have a system for defining who is more trustworthy.

So, if we replace late medieval Feudalism with a Meritocracy without changing any other cultural or technological elements, what you will see are things like the code of chivalry and the divine right of rulership come into play. The code of chivalry says that people of noble birth have an extra duty to be honest in all things; so, in this world, your leaders will be expected to be chivalrous, and the people they select will be expected to be able to follow the code of chivalry. Then the divine right of rulership says that God himself guides the succession of rulers; so, if a person is promoted to be a member of the government, then this is the will of God and is therefore beyond contestation.

With these factors in place, anything a ruler says is true, and anything a commoner says otherwise must be a lie because commoners are not bound by chivalry and they are not chosen by the will of God, and even if a leader does get caught in a lie, you still can not oppose him without risking your immortal soul by contradicting the will of God who gave them rulership.

In short, the government will become perpetually more corrupt, but never so corrupt that a significant number of people will be willing to question or oppose it. Instead what will happen is that the government will eventually select members who are so motivated by power and care so little about ethics that the leadership itself will be the government's undoing. Instead of selecting new members to bring in, someone will eventually rise up who will want to be the nation's undisputed monarch at which point there will be some manner of civil war or extermination of political opponents followed the dismantling of the meritocratic system all together.


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