How does Swift use economics in "A Modest Proposal"?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" (1728), one of the greatest examples of satire in the English language, targets both the English, for exploiting Ireland's raw materials and its people, and the Irish, for allowing themselves to be exploited and collaborating in their own exploitation.  Swift uses the persona of the modest projector, a man who suggests a way to resolve Ireland's crippling poverty and massive overpopulation.  The method, of course, is to use Irish children as a viable and economically beneficial food source--cannibalism cloaked in perfect economic calculations by a projector whose only concern is Ireland's welfare.  After all, as the projector points out at the end of the essay, his motives are pure because he has no children and can therefore not gain by his own proposal.

Before the discussion of how the economics of this new food source works, the proposer his readers that

I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity . . . they will not yield above three pounds or three pounds and a half-crown at most . . . the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

In other words, the proposer, having done his research well, argues that children are not worth the value of their upbringing--they simply cost too much to raise.  

Having done further research, including discussing recipes with "an American friend," the proposer discovers that the economics of using a beggar's child, an infant under one year old,  is quite reasonable:

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child . . . to be about two shillings per annum [year], rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine [would not be reluctant to] give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat. . . .

The proposer goes on to say that the mother will have a profit of eight shillings, and for those who really want to make a profit from the child's carcass, the proposer notes that the skin can be used for "admirable gloves for ladies, and summer-boots for fine gentlemen."  So, for an outlay of ten shillings, one can have four servings of meat and use the skin for other salable commodities.

The irony, and horror, of the proposal is in large part created by the very cool, scientific tone with which the calculations of eating children are set forth in the essay.  Had Swift simply written an essay complaining about the treatment of the Irish, which he did in other works beginning in the early 1700s, very few people would have paid much attention to his work.  But creating such a horrific proposal, and using diction usually reserved for dry economic and scientific works, Swift delivered his most effective discussion of what was called at the time the "Irish problem."