A Modest Proposal


Jonathan Swift

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Ireland is in crisis. Throughout Dublin and across the country, the Irish people live in poverty and squalor. Many women, unable to find work, have resorted to begging, many of them trailing their young children behind them. The Proposer, the anonymous speaker of the essay, sees these children—who probably number in the hundreds of thousands, and who cannot be supported by their parents—as a great burden to the public. Their mere existence poses an extremely difficult problem.

Not to worry, though: the Proposer has an ingenious solution! This solution, he promises, will ensure not only that the children of beggars become contributing members of society, but it will also ensure that all the children of Ireland’s poor will be rescued from their sorry condition.

So, what is this genius plan? Simple, the Proposer explains: those mothers who cannot provide for their children will rear them for one year, then sell them to wealthy men of taste. These wealthy men will slaughter the infants and eat them. The Proposer’s friend, an American, has informed him that infant flesh is, in fact, delicious.

As the Proposer sees it, this one quick fix will bring about many improvements to society. For one, the mothers will be able to sell their young children at a considerable profit, as it costs little to rear a child for one year. These mothers, some of them beggars, others indebted to their landlords, will thus be lifted out of poverty. The profits overall will boost the Irish economy, as the children are an entirely domestic product, their flesh being too delicate to export. Further, the great majority of Irish poor are Catholic, so the sale and consumption of their children will limit the Catholic population, a group that the Proposer sees as especially wicked. Finally, the Irish public will learn to value marriage, as husbands will come to treat their wives as prized livestock.

The Proposer refuses to take seriously any objections to his plan. The alternative plans that can be proposed in its stead—such as improving manufacturing in Ireland, taxing landlords who do not themselves live in the country, instilling in the public values of temperance, prudence, and love of country—strike him as clearly impossible to put into effect. Further, the Proposer promises us that he is speaking in complete earnest. He stands to gain nothing personally from his plan, as his own child is no longer an infant, and his wife is now too old to bear more children.