Dean Swift and 18thC Economic Thought

October 16-17 2010 in St Patrick's Deanery, Dublin

Swift's Critique of the 'Economic' Way of Thinking

Renee Prendergast, Queen's University Management School, Belfast BT7 1NN

This version should be seen as a draft, subject to additions based on the ensuing discussions.

In this paper, I argue that Swift's Modest Proposal should be read as a powerful critique of the economic way of thinking which in important respects is as relevant in our time as it was in his own. I shall argue that there are four important elements to this critique. First, there is an implicit critique of consequentialism by which is meant the evaluation of acts by their consequences only. Secondly, there is the related parodying of political arithmetic which devalues all human sentiment and considers only matters which can be measured in money or some other terms. Thirdly, there is the implied critique of theories of population which were current in Swift's time according to which people were the wealth of a nation but only if they were employed in productive labour. Fourthly, the voice in which A Modest Proposal is written is one which simultaneously advocates and condemns the killing of babies and young children thereby implicitly criticizing the culture of commercial society in which, to use Mandeville's phrase, honour has replaced real virtue.

Amartya Sen has identified consequentialism, the judging of acts by their consequences, and act evaluation rather than rule evaluation as two of the most important characteristics of economic rationality (Sen, 1982). The term consequentialism was introduced in Anscombe's 'Modern Moral Philosophy' in 1958. Anscombe contrasted traditional utilitarianism according to which certain things such as the killing of an innocent were forbidden regardless of the consequences with a more modern variant, termed consequentialism, according to which consequences alone are taken into account. While Anscombe placed the move to unrestrained consequentialism in the late nineteenth century, issues relating to what should count in social evaluation were already the subject of heated debate in the early eighteenth century. It is suggested here that Swift's A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public can be regarded as a critique of consequentialism, perhaps the finest and most effective that has ever been written. The argument is not explicit but by applying consequentialist reasoning, Swift shows that it can be used to rationally justify a course of action which is grotesque and barbaric.

Bernard Mandeville - Private Vices, Public Benefits
In consequentialist/utilitatian ethics, an action is judged to be good or bad depending on its consequences. This means that actions which a virtue ethicist or a deontologist would regard as wrong may be positively evaluated by a consequentialist. In Swift's time, the possibility of different evaluations within different ethical schemes was exploited by Bernard Mandeville who, in his Fable of the Bees, took great delight in showing that that the pursuit of virtue might in fact be inconsistent with social prosperity. As intended Mandeville's work aroused great consternation and much criticism. In his Fable of the Bees, Mandeville exploited the satirical possibilities offered by the conflict between virtue and prosperity but claimed always to favour virtuous action. He departed from this position, however, in Modest Defence of Public Stews(1) in which he argued that since efforts to stamp out prostitution had proved futile, the best course of action was to provide well regulated public brothels. Against those who might protest that it was impermissible to do evil that good might come of it, Mandeville argued that:

"...their Actions, that is, their Laws, are judg'd good or bad, just or unjust, according as they actually prove beneficial or detrimental to the Society in general: And therefore it is the grossest Absurdity, and a perfect Contradiction in Terms, to assert, That a Government may not commit Evil that Good may come of it; for, if a Publick Act, taking in all its Consequences, really produces a greater Quantity of Good, it must, and ought to be term'd a good Act; altho' the bare Act, consider'd in itself, without the consequent Good, should be in the highest Degree wicked."

In making his case for a consequentialist as opposed to moral evalution, Mandeville chose as his subject matter a topic which was likely to offend and, as Cook notes, took considerable care to 'bait the tender minded reader'. But for all of this, Mandeville was considering a 'vice' which was widely practised and whose practice and ill effects he could plausibly argue would be actually reduced by his proposals. If it is accepted that Swift had Mandeville's Modest Defence in mind when he wrote his own Modest Proposal, we can see him as beating Mandeville at his own game by showing that there were really no bounds on what could be justified by consequentialist reasoning.

Although Swift made no direct comment on Mandeville, there is good reason to assume familiarity with his work. There is a close resemblance between Swift's account of the consequences of real Christianity in his Argument against Abolishing Christianity (1708) and Mandeville's account of the consequences of introducing virtue into the hive in the poem The Grumbling Hive, or, Knaves Turn'd Honest (1705) which eventually evolved into his larger work Fable of the Bees. Moreover, as Rawson (2001:61) suggests the work of the two authors appears to show 'a pattern of tacit or interlocking awareness of one another, and 'a reciprocal array of undeclared allusion'.

The Modest Proposal
Swift's modest purports to solve the problem of poverty in Ireland by offering one hundred thousand children for sale as food to persons of quality and fortune. Swift claims that his proposal would give rise to several advantages including lessening the number of papists; providing the poorest tenants with something valuable which would enable them to pay their rent, increase the nation's stock by the amount of sustenance; provide income to the parents of the children as well as saving the costs of maintenance after one year; bring custom to taverns; provide inducements to marriage and cause parents to love their children because of the prospect of gain when they are sold. Swift claimed to think of only one objection to his proposal namely that the number of people in the kingdom would be lessened. This was an important objection because it was widely held at the time that Ireland was under-peopled and that this was the cause of its poverty. At the close of his pamphlet, however, Swift also took the precaution of suggesting that the children themselves would also benefit. He suggested that anyone who objected to his proposal should ask the parents 'whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold at a year old' and thereby avoid their misfortunes (Swift, 1905: 216).

A Connection with Mandeville?
The use of the word modest in the title might seem like an obvious link between Mandeville and Swift's pamphlets. However, such use was not uncommon in the pamphlet literature and indeed Swift, himself, had previously published A Modest Defence of Punning in 1716. As Cook has pointed out, what connects Mandeville and Swift's pamphlets is their use of the word modest in works which advocate shocking violations of accepted moral practice. Both pamphlets also use a common methodology involving the enumeration of the benefits of the proposed scheme which allows them to claim that the scheme in question advances the public good of the country. A distinctive feature of both pamphlets is that they pay a good deal of attention to the issue of incentive compatibility.

Other internal resonances and counterpoints relate to the authors' condemnations of abortion and infanticide, the differences on the lessening of the number of people and the required ratio of men to women. In Mandeville's case, the ratio in question was that necessary for a brothel whereas in Swift's it was that required for the breeding of children outside the institution of marriage(2). There are resonances of Mandeville's Essay on Charity and Charity Schools in Swift's treatment of stealing as a livelihood like any other in which proficiency has to be learnt (Mandeville, I: 275; Swift, 1905: 209) and in his abhorrence of inhumanity (Mandeville, I: 310; Swift, 1905: 211).

In Mandeville's case, abortion and infanticide are listed alongside the spread of venereal diseases, living beyond ones means and alienation of spouses as consequences of prostitution and support his argument that regulated prostitution is the lesser of two evils:

"..The murdering of Bastard Infants is another Consequence of this Vice, by much worse than the Vice itself: and tho' the Law is justly severe in this Particular, as rightly judging that a Mind capable of divesting itself so intirely of Humanity, is not fit to live in a civiliz'd Nation; yet there are so many ways of evading it, either by destroying the Infants before their Birth, or suffering them afterwards to die by wilful Neglect, that there appears but little Hope of putting any Stop to this Practice, which, besides the Barbarity of it, tends very much to dispeople the [5] Country..." (Primer, 2006: 56)

Swift presents the prevention of abortion and infanticide as an advantage of his modest proposal. With Mandeville these crimes were committed by women to preserve their honour to which their economic prospects were also linked. For Swift, economic considerations are uppermost. It is expense rather than shame that motivates the killing of children:

"..There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast..." (Swift, 1905: 208). While Swift's declared abhorrence of abortion and infanticide helps to underline the terrible nature of the scheme he is about to put forward, it may also serve to depict the proposer as a man of honour concerned about his reputation rather than a man of real virtue(3). This is reinforced by his later suggestion that alternative involving the killing of young girls entering puberty would attract censure and appear cruel 'something which I confess , hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project , however so well intended (Swift, 1905: 211).

Although Mandeville's pamphlet provides estimates relating to the number of brothels required, the number of courtesans in each house categorised according to their qualities, the amounts these might charge to each class of customer, the tax that would be required to cover the cost of commissioners and of the maintenance of an infirmary, bastard orphans, and superannuated courtesans, the argument in his pamphlet is primarily qualitative. As noted above, he is careful to make sure that his proposals are incentive compatible so that both courtesans and costumers would prefer to use public rather than private stews and that courtesans infected with venereal disease would have an incentive not to conceal it. Despite this care, Mandeville qualified his proposals by acknowledging that the development of new institutions involved a process of trial and error so that modifications were likely to be required in the light of experience (Primer, 2006: 62).

A Connection with Political Arithmetic?
In this respect Swift's pamphlet is different. Whereas Mandeville discourses at length on the unruly natural passions which can be steered but not suppressed, Swift's pamphlet is ruthlessly unsentimental and dispassionate. As has been pointed out by Wittkowsky, 1943 and Letwin, 1963, the paramount influence on the method employed in Modest Proposal appears to political arithmetic which was pioneered by in the work of Sir William Petty. Petty's approach is set out in detail in the preface to his Political Arithmetic where he wrote:

"..The method I take to do this, is not very usual; for instead of using only comparative and superlative words and intellectual arguments, I have taken the courseā€¦.to express myself in terms of number, weigh, or measure; to use only arguments of sense, and to consider only such causes, as have visible foundations in nature; leaving those that depend upon the mutable minds, opinions, appetites and passions of particular men the consideration of others.." (Hull, 1899, I: 244)

The method is employed throughout Petty's work but a sample from the Political Anatomy of Ireland will suffice to convey the flavour of his reasoning:

"..Whereas the present proportion of the British is as 3 to 11, But before the wars the proportion was less, viz. as 2 to 11. and then it follows that the number of British slain in 11 years was 112 thousand souls; of which I guess 2/3 to have perished by war, plague and famine. So as it follows that 37,000 were massacred in the first year of tumults; so as those who think that 154,000 were so destroyed, ought to review the grounds of their opinion..."

It follows that about 504k of the Irish perished and were wasted by sword, plague, famine hardship and banishment, between the 23 October 1641 and the same day 1652. (Hull, I:150)

In the Modest Proposal, Swift parodies the style of Political Anatomy and other works of this type by expressing himself in terms of number, weight or measure whenever possible; by adopting a dispassionate, economical style of expression though one that is somewhat more eloquent than Petty's:

"..The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed..."

Apart from the obvious similarities in style and method, we may notice also that just as Petty declared himself to have no other end than the peace and plenty of his country in the author's Preface to the Political Anatomy, Swift also proclaims his objectivity:

"..I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work , having no other motive than the public good of my country , by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing..." (Swift, 1905:216).

In considering the possible relationship between Petty's writing and that of Swift, it is also important to bear in mind is that Petty had an outlandish proposal of his own namely his proposal for the transportation of the people of Ireland and the highlands of Scotland into the rest of Great Britain which he made in the Political Arithmetic. So radical was this proposal that Petty took the unusual step of suggesting that he was not totally serious.

"..And here I beg leave... to interpose a jocular, and perhaps ridiculous digression, and which I indeed desire men to look upon, rather as a dream or revery , than a rational proposition; the which is that if all the moveables and people of Ireland and of the Highlands of Scotland, were transported into the rest of Great Britain; that then the king and his subjects, would thereby become more rich and strong, both offensively and defensively than now they are..." (Hull, 1899, I: 285)

Petty's proposal relied on his observation that land rents and therefore land values were higher in countries where population was denser. He argued that his proposal was worthy of consideration provided that food for the transported population could be raised with the same amount of labour as currently and that the increase in the price of land in England exceeded the value of immovables that had been left behind in Ireland. If in addition it were possible to sell the lands and immovables to another nation, "..the whole proposal will be a pleasant and profitable dream indeed.." (Hull, 1899, I: 287). As Brewer (2011: 22-3) has pointed out, Petty seems to have taken the 'dream' sufficiently seriously to present James II with a fully worked out proposal in 1687 although nothing ever came of the project.

Fewness of People
Petty had argued that fewness of people was real poverty (Hull, 1899, I: 34). In his Treatise of Taxes and Contributions, he suggested that a nation of 8 million people would be more than twice as rich as a nation of 4 million on the same scope of land(4). However, Petty's more general position was not that more people automatically meant more wealth but that the more people who were productively employed the greater the wealth that would be produced (Hull, 1899, I: 214-223). Petty was also of the view that a dense population aided development by reducing transport and transactions costs and by encouraging honest dealing and it was this aspect which, at least in part, underlay his proposals for transportation of the bulk of the Irish population to England.

The view that labour which was productively employed was the main source of riches is also present in Mandeville (1924, I: 286-8, 310-1) and is consistent with that taken by Swift in the Modest Proposal. In A Short View of the State of Ireland (1727-8), Swift provided a list of rules 'generally known, and never contradicted, that were the true causes of any country's flourishing and growing rich' (Swift, 1905: 83).

In the seventh rule, Swift refers to 'the improvement of land' and 'encouragement of agriculture' 'increasing the number of their people' without which the country must continue poor (ibid.:84). Swift's argument in Maxims Controlled in Ireland (1724) where he disputes the maxim that people are the riches of a nation, is that this is not the case in Ireland's present situation because, for want of trade and employment, the poor are forced to support themselves by begging and thievery (Hull, 1899, I: 70-1). This led Swift to argue that people should be encouraged to emigrate and he declared that for wretches brought up to steal or beg for want of work 'death would be the best thing to be wished for on account both of themselves and the public'.

As Landa (1942) and Wittkowsky (1943) have noted, expressions of the view that people were the richness of the nation were widespread in Swift's time although, if taken with their supporting arguments, they usually meant that people's labour was a potential source of wealth. Swift fully understood the argument being made by political economists of his era but it was convenient for him to exploit the unqualified view given that it accorded with the Christian view that all men were equally valuable before god. That this required a degree of economic sophistication is evident when we take account of the fact that, a century later, David Ricardo found it necessary to criticize Adam Smith for magnifying the advantages derived from a large gross rather than net revenue. Ricardo found it necessary to explain that provided its net real income be the same,' it is of no importance whether the nation consists of ten or twelve million inhabitants (Ricardo, 1951: 347-8).

Swift's employment of political arithmetic is important in giving his satire the appearance of objectivity and rationality. However, it should be noted that while his mimicry of Petty's style is devastatingly effective, Swift's arguments are not always watertight from an economic point of view. For instance, he suggests that there will be an adequate market for the projected number of children at the price of ten shillings for a good fat child. This is pure conjecture though it is asserted as if it were a certainty.

The question arises as to whether Swift's employment of the language of political arithmetic was purely for stylistic effect or whether it had the wider purpose of critiquing political economy itself? This is a difficult question to answer because 'teasing uncertainty' is part and parcel of part of Swift's art. Nonetheless, the dressing of his modest proposal in the language of political arithmetic and the employment of consequential forms of reasoning to argue for something so obviously immoral would seem to indicate that Swift was pointing to something very wrong with the methods of measurement and/or the consequential evaluation.

Mandeville had shown that virtuous action by individuals could lead to bad consequences for society and that conversely private vices could promote the public good. Arguably, by doing so he forced people to confront the double standards they entertained and argued that they would have to choose between morality and wealth. There is no doubt that Mandeville succeeding in baiting those who subscribed to the values of an older order. Swift may not have had an alternative to offer but he showed that the new dispensation posed dangers that not even Mandeville was ready to admit.


1. The Modest Defence was published anonymously but it is generally accepted that Mandeville was the most likely author. On this see Primer, 2006: 109-113.
2. According to Mandeville unlike in the case of cocks and town bulls, one woman could service a large number of rampant males (Primer, 2006:65) whereas according to Swift, one male was sufficient to serve four females which is more than we allow for sheep, black cattle and swine (Swift, 1905: 209).
3. The distinction was made in Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (I. 222) and also in his Enquiry into the Origin of Honour. Mandeville was very clear that modern society required certain forms of socially approved behaviour which often passed for moral conduct but gave large grains of allowance while virtue gives none.
4. As noted above, this position is also taken by Mandeville in A Modest Defence.


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