Between Public Welfare and Personal Profit: Corruption and its Reflections in the Hungarian Discourse of the First Half

Medzi verejným blahom a osobným prospechom. Arény korupcie a jej reflexia v uhorskom diskurze v prvej polovici „dlhého“ 19. storočia

From the viewpoint of current perception and definition of corruption the first half the "long" 19th century represents a milestone. In the process of social modernisation (bureaucratisation, dissolution of corporative structures, spread of literacy etc.) new standards distinguishing between the legitimate co-creation of the public good and the legally and morally disqualifying practices of acquiring personal or group advantages were established.
In Hungary during 1780 – 1848 those processes were hindered by a systematic refusing of all changes and reforms streaming from Vienna. Very slow pace of decoupling the private and public spheres due to the prevailing position of nobility in the society caused that the pre-modern corruption practices and various methods of favouritism were persisting as legitimate even during the period of reforms (1825 – 1848). In certain sectors of public sphere they ceased to be performed publicly, that is, without the presence of witnesses (e.g. gift-giving to judges); however, the corruption that was present at the county elections that had become ritualised and institutionalised in the first third of the 19th century could not be eliminated at all.
In the Habsburg monarchy existed in parallel two models of administration – Austrian (modern bureaucratic) and Hungarian (pre-modern municipal) – during that period. In the present study the author makes an inquiry into what role the criticism of corruption in the mutual discrediting and delegitimizing of the two models played and which sectors of public administration were perceived in the contemporary Hungarian discourse as those, where occurrence of various types and forms of corruption behaviour was frequent-most.
During the period of reforms in the public discourse in Hungary the elections of representatives to the county committees and deputies to the Hungarian diet were most frequently related to corruption. The State made efforts to eliminate the practice of bribing the voters and the scandals occurring at elections, but the Hungarian nobility did not perceive the corruption as a serious problem and defended it (by making reference to England and Switzerland) in the sense that it was a "toll" to be paid when a country was administered by elected politicians and not by politicians nominated by an absolutistic state. In the end of the period of reforms in the 1840s the corruption had become an important tool of political struggle both within the Hungarian society and between Vienna and the reforms-oriented Hungarian nobility. It was used for discrediting and delegitimizing the political system by pointing out its degeneration, obsoleteness, and inefficiency. Similarly to the English, German or French societies the establishing of political corruption as a relevant topic in the public discourse in Hungary was one of the signs of ongoing modernisation.