- 1 Sherman’s prose is dense, difficult and abstract in contrast with the simplicity and realism which (...)
1In the period between 1660 and 1760, Britain transformed itself from a small island economy with a relatively small population into a major naval power with an immense empire. This transformation was driven in part by the powerful forces of commercial capitalism which had been in the process of development for over a century but, as Brewer (1990) shows, Britain’s military success required increased taxation and deficit financing as well as the growth of a substantial public administration. These changes involved the creation of new forms of virtual property and a shift in authority away from the landed gentry towards merchants and financiers. They also involved an increased emphasis on contractual relationships between people and between subjects and the state (Moore, 2004). Modern literary critics have explored the relationship between the financial revolution and the literary revolution of the early eighteenth century and have found them to be intimately connected. Thus Sandra Sherman argues that the market in ideas and that constituted by commercial paper “generate a mutually inflecting discursive field around the notion of ‘fiction’” (Sherman, 1996, 2)1 while Colin Nicholson explores the reaction against the financial revolution in the ‘capital’ satires of Pope, Swift and Gay (Nicholson, 1994).
2Sherman’s subject is Defoe, whose own colourful life had included periods as a merchant, a bankrupt, a manufacturer, a prominent dissenter, a journalist, a spy and propagandist. Defoe was also a vigorous spokesman for the rising trading class and the celebrated author of Robinson Crusoe which many regard as the first English novel. In Crusoe, Defoe depicted a new type of Englishman, ‘empirical, self-reliant, energetic’ and with a direct relationship with God (Allen, 1969, 35). He also broke with the accepted canons of prose style―a sacrifice which enabled him to achieve realism and immediacy, both of which became characteristic of the novel (Watt, 1960, 29).
3If Defoe exemplifies the positive literary response to the growing importance of trade, to the decline of the landed aristocracy and the increasing power of those involved in trade and finance (Shinagel, 1968), Swift and Gay and Pope who formed the ‘Scriblerus club’ represent a counter trend. These authors voiced hostility to the arriviste elite composed of corrupt financiers, bankers and brokers who they saw as undermining the older, more stable political structures (Nicholson, 1994, 18-23). In Gulliver’s Travels, The Beggars Opera and the Dunciad, they were quick to satirize the mercenary spirit of their times but, as Nicholson has shown, they were also privately willing to exploit the opportunities for enrichment provided by the rise and fall of markets for stocks and shares. Swift, Gay and Pope were also amongst the first to take advantage of the developing market for printed matter, a factor which freed writers from dependence upon aristocratic patronage. While the willingness of the ‘Scriblerians’ to exploit the market they professed to despise might be interpreted as hypocrisy on their part, they made good use of the opportunities that had become available to rail against changes which were permanently altering the economic and political landscape and rendering obsolete the values that they themselves promoted.
- 2 See also Fabricant and Mahony (2010, xiv-xxvi)
4Swift, Gay and Pope may have found themselves on the wrong side of history but their political satires may also be regarded as providing a pertinent critique of the greed and irrationality of contemporary England. The situation with regard to Ireland where Swift spent the latter half of his life was rather more complicated. Ireland’s development was being subordinated to that of England and while it too had a growing national debt, the power of the landed aristocracy was not being eroded in the same way by the moneyed interest (Moore, 2010). There is also the issue of Swift’s own relationship with Ireland. Although born and educated in Ireland, Swift had tried to make his way in England and during the period 1710-1714 enjoyed a position of considerable political influence (Cook, 1967). However, when the hoped for appointment to an English bishopric did not materialize, Swift had to settle for the Deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The fact that Swift did not feel at home or fully accepted in either culture led to a ‘homelessness of mind’ which, Kiberd argues, ‘accounts for the coldly anthropological strain in Swift, his willingness to ask questions of a culture and not just within it’ (Kiberd, 2001, 81).2
5As Womersley (2012, lii) has noted, Swift’s re-engagement with Ireland makes itself felt in Gulliver’s Travels in a variety of ways but it emerges even more clearly in Swift’s political and economic writings on Ireland from 1720 onwards. Swift was forced to engage with problems of economic development, which were very different from those that preoccupied him in England. He developed a good understanding of main economic issues of the day and could hold his own in key debates on strategy (Kelly, 1991). However, Swift’s real mastery lay elsewhere, that is, in his grasp of the essential features of the emerging market economy and the social relationships underlying it. It was this mastery that allowed him to recognise that the emerging forms of economic analysis involving quantification and consequential reasoning meant that moral issues were ignored. This is most evident in A Modest Proposal, in which Swift used techniques which were commonplace amongst his contemporaries to put forward a project which would be beneficial for all the participants and arguably provide a solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland. The project―the production of infant flesh for profit―set out in calm objective prose and meeting the criteria of usefulness and voluntariness pointed to the moral bankruptcy of the emerging market society and the dangers posed by the consequentialist reasoning adopted by its advocates. By showing where such reasoning can lead, Swift threw out a challenge to those who would follow it which remains relevant to this day.
6The remainder of the paper is organised as follows. Section 1 discusses Swift’s attitude to the financial revolution in England and his views on its implications for political stability and for the transfer of power from the landed to the mercantile and financial interests. Section 2 deals with Swift’s re-engagement with Ireland following his appointment as Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. It focuses particularly on the economic writings which reflect Swift’s developing response to economic crisis in Ireland in the decade beginning 1720. Gulliver’s Travels is discussed in Section 3. Particular attention is paid to its critique of the national debt, its implicit defence of traditional tacit knowledge as opposed to modern ‘scientific’ rationality, its discussion of the division of labour and its critique of commercial society and of colonialism. The fourth section of the paper focuses on A Modest Proposal and considers it in relation to proposals made by William Petty and Bernard Mandeville. It is suggested that in addition to parodying Petty’s political arithmetic, Swift also had in his sights the consequentialist reasoning which was present in the work of both of these authors but explicitly so in Mandeville. The final section of the paper summarizes Swift’s main contributions to economics. It addition to the issues noted above, this section draws attention to Swift’s keen appreciation of the importance of incentives for the organisation of commercial societies as well as his perceptive comments on the problem of quality.
7The English system of public credit was developed in the late seventeenth century to allow William III to pursue a war against France. In 1694, the Bank of England was established with a view to providing William with loan finance. Subscriptions totalling £1.2 million raised from the public formed the initial capital stock of the bank and were, in turn, lent on to Government in return for a Royal Charter. Interest payments on these loans to government were to be paid out of future tax revenues. This was important for a number of reasons. First, once it was accepted that credit could be issued against future tax revenues, it soon became clear that there were other untapped sources of assets such as stocks of merchandise, revenues on land and commercial obligations, against which ’credit’ or ’imaginary money’ could be raised. As Swift put it:
- 3 Although written in 1713 and prepared for publication by Swift in 1737, The History of the Last Fou (...)
the present Bishop of Salisbury is said to have found out that expedient…of raising money upon the security of taxes… But when this expedient of anticipations and mortgages was first put into practice; artful men in office and credit began to consider what uses it might be apply’d to; and soon found it was most likely to prove the most fruitful seminary…to raise vast wealth for themselves in particular who were to be the managers and directors of it. (Swift, 31951, VII, 69)
8Besides, as Swift also observed, ‘Whoever were lenders to the government, would by the surest principle be obliged to support it’ (Swift,  1951, VII, 68).
- 4 See letter of Archbishop King of Dublin to the Archbishop of Canterbury, March 28th 1720-21 (King, (...)
9The granting of the initial Charter to the Bank of England was driven by financial exigency. Subsequent renewals of the charter were used by government as opportunities to seek further loans which were made necessary by England’s involvement from 1701 in the War of the Spanish Succession. As a result, public debts continued to mount and when the Tories returned to power in 1710, they looked for ways of reducing the debt. This they proposed to do by means of the South Sea company. Holders of government debt could voluntarily exchange it for a capital sum in the form of stock in the South Sea company which had been granted a monopoly on the slave trade to Spanish America. While the proposal had attractions for government and for debt holders, there were also a number of problems. One of these was the limiting of profitable trading opportunities for the company following the treaty of Utrecht 1713 which ended the war with Spain. Another was that when parliament authorised further conversion of debt into South Sea shares in 1719, the amount of South Sea stock to be granted in exchange for government debt and annuities was not fixed but depended on the price of stock. This created incentives for the directors to encourage stock price inflation which they duly did all too successfully. The bursting of the South Sea bubble in 1720 resulted in financial ruin for many. Its impact was widely felt. Collapse in the London markets triggered collapse in France and Holland. Trust disappeared and for a brief period even the Bank of England ceased to discount bills. Trade was at a standstill not just in England but in Ireland as well.4 Even so, the government benefitted from the reduction in both the capital and interest on its debt which was the original intention of the scheme (Dickson, 1967, 197).
10Although Swift had been a protégé of the Williamite Sir William Temple and received preferment from the Whigs during the 1690s’, by 1710, he had gravitated towards the Tories and became one of their chief propagandists (Cook, 1967). Swift became editor of the Examiner and, in 1711, published a pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies which made a case for the ending of England’s engagement in continental Wars. Swift argued that that these wars brought little or no advantage for England and that the real reason for pursuing them was initially to secure the political position of William of Orange. ‘[T]he true Reason for embracing this Expedient, was the Security of a new Prince, not firmly settled on the Throne: People were tempted to lend, by great Premiums and large Interest, and it concerned them nearly to preserve that Government, which they trusted with their Money.’ (Swift,  2008, VIII, 5) Swift likened this practice to that of ‘Eumenes one of Alexander’s captains, who setting up for himself after the death of his Master, persuaded his principal officers to lend him great sums, after which they were forced to follow him for their own security’(Swift,  1940, III, 6).
11As a consequence of the growth of government debt and the incentives provided for lending to it, the provision of credit to the government became more attractive than the real business of merchants and farmers.
Several Persons who had small or incumbered estates, sold them, and turned their money into those funds to great advantage: merchants, as well as other moneyed men, finding trade was dangerous, pursued the same method: but the war continuing, and growing more expensive, taxes were increased, and funds multiplied every year, till they have arrived at the monstrous height we how behold them. And that which was at first a corruption, is at last grown necessary…By this means the wealth of the nation that used to be reckoned by the value of land, is now computed by the rise and fall of stock. (Swift,  1940, III, 6)
12As to the South Sea Scheme promoted by the new Tory Administration, Swift’s attitude was initially entirely positive and he commended the scheme as being ‘likely to prove the greatest restoration and establishment of the kingdom’s credit’ (Nicholson, 1994, 51). Even after the collapse of the South Sea bubble, Swift remained unrepentant arguing that the real underlying problem was not the company itself but the conditions that had necessitated it (Fauske, 2008, 143-144):
I ever abominated that scheme of politicks, (now about thirty years old) of setting up a monied interest in opposition to the landed. For, I conceived, there could not be a truer maxim in our government than this, That the possessors of the soil are the best judges of what is for the advantage of the kingdom: If others had thought the same way, funds of credit and South-sea projects would neither have been felt nor heard of.
(Letter to Alexander Pope, January 10, 1721, Swift, 2001, II, 354-364)
- 5 Cook argues that Swift intended the Tale to be both useful and diverting with the intended audience (...)
13Swift had been ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1694 and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1702. While he was part of the inner circle of the Tory government in England, Swift had entertained hopes that he would be rewarded with an important Church appointment in England. Perhaps because his early satirical work A Tale of a Tub had raised questions about the nature of Swift’s Christian beliefs, he was not so favoured.5 As a result, in 1714, Swift returned to Ireland to take up the Deanship of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a position he occupied until his death in 1745.
- 6 Except for The Drapier’s Letters, the Irish writings referred to in this section and in the section (...)
14For nearly six years after taking up the post of Dean, Swift published very little. At this point, he was not entirely reconciled to the prospect of living permanently in Ireland and thought his interests would best be served by avoiding any involvement in political controversy (Kelly, 1991, 9). However, as the Irish economy plunged into crisis towards the end of the second decade of the century, Swift found it impossible to remain silent. In 1720, he published A Proposal for the universal Use of Irish Manufactures.6 This was the first of Swift’s tracts on Ireland which were to establish his credentials as a great Irish patriot. The tract which was published anonymously urged people to boycott imports and to use only products of Irish provenance. On the face of it, the pamphlet was a straightforward appeal to consumers to promote local industry and employment by buying Irish goods―a proposal which fifteen years later was to feature prominently in George Berkeley’s Querist. However, the real purpose of the pamphlet appears to have been to question English interference in Irish affairs at a time when the English Parliament had passed a bill which asserted its right to make laws on behalf of Ireland (McMinn, 2003; Fauske, 2008). This led the authorities to pursue a legal case against the pamphlet but the difficulty of securing a conviction meant that the case was eventually dropped.
15The last paragraph of the Proposal indicated Swift’s opposition to the project, then current, to establish a national bank for Ireland. Swift reported that he had been informed by judicious persons that, in the event of the Bank being set up, one half of the money would be real and the other half ‘altogether imaginary’. Given Swift’s attitude to the financial revolution in England, his opposition to the proposal is hardly surprising. It should be noted, however, that the Irish financial revolution was a rather limited affair and that it came much later than the corresponding developments in England. Prior to 1716, when a loan of £50,000 was raised by the Irish Parliament, Ireland had no national debt and no capital markets (McGrath, 2008). The proposal for a Bank of Ireland which emerged in 1720 was intended ‘to establish a paper credit upon a good foundation’ thereby solving the problem of a shortage of specie and providing a stimulus to trade’ (ibid.). Although the proposal initially appeared to have considerable support, the collapse of the South Sea bubble had a detrimental effect on the Irish economy and on public confidence in schemes involving ‘imaginary’ money. While these factors contributed to the defeat of the proposal for a national bank, it has been suggested that the perceived potential impact on the relative positions of landowners and owners of capital was also important (Ryder, 1982; Fauske, 2008).
- 7 Although the contract provided for a face value considerably above the intrinsic value of the coins (...)
16Swift’s contribution to the debate around the proposal for a national bank was limited. He played a much more prominent role in the successful campaign against Wood’s halfpence. This related to the proposed introduction of copper halfpence and farthing pieces, the patent for which had been granted to a Wolverhampton metal manufacturer, William Wood. The introduction of these coins would have contributed to the alleviation of a shortage of small change which was widely acknowledged to be a serious problem in Ireland at the time. However, the coins would not have the status of legal tender (Fauske, 2008, 146). Large quantities had been initially authorized and there were insufficient safeguards to insure the intrinsic worth of the coins.7 In addition, there was a perception that the scheme was being imposed from outside, that the patent had been obtained through political graft and that the profits deriving from it would be exported (McGrath, 2008, 174). Finally, there was lingering resentment that Ireland was unable to mint its own money (Fabricant, 2003, 56).
17Both houses of the Irish Parliament expressed opposition to the introduction of the new coinage in 1723 but the English government sought to tough it out. Swift’s intervention came in 1724 in a series of letters by M. B. Drapier each addressed to a different person or body. The first letter, addressed to shopkeepers made much of the losses that would be borne by people who consented to use the debased copper coinage. People had experienced losses in living memory when following his victory over James II, William III had declared the Jacobite coins to be worth their weight in metal and not their face value. However, Swift’s main arguments were political rather than economic. Thus, in the third letter addressed to the nobility and gentry of the Kingdom of Ireland, Swift wrote:
Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England? How have they forfeited their Freedom? Is not their Parliament as fair a Representative of the People as that of England? And hath not their Privy Council great or a greater Share in the Administration of Publick Affairs? Are they not Subjects of the same King? Does not the same Sun shine over them? And have they not the same God for their Protector? Am I a Free-Man in England, and do I become a Slave in six Hours by crossing the Channel? (Swift,  1941, X, 31)
18At a time when Catholics and Dissenters were debarred from parliament by penal laws with Swift’s manifest approval, this passage might be thought to beg some questions. Even so, Swift had the temerity to address his fourth letter to the whole people of Ireland. In it, he strongly challenged English misrule in Ireland of which Woods halfpence was merely the latest manifestation. Swift reminded his readers that ‘all Government without the Consent of the Governed is the very Definition of Slavery’. England had used power to cramp liberty and not satisfied with this had ‘gone so far as to Resent even the Liberty of Complaining’ (Swift,  1941, X, 63).
19Wood’s patent was eventually withdrawn. On the downside, coin shortages continued for longer than necessary but politically the campaign was successful in showing that resistance to impositions from England could be effective.
- 8 Referring to Swift’s statement that Ireland was denied the liberty of coining gold, silver or even (...)
- 9 In the seventh letter, Swift proposed that copper money should be coined in Ireland under the super (...)
20Patrick Kelly (2003) has noted that Swift’s contribution to the campaign against Wood’s halfpence meant that his future pronouncements on economic matters were treated with enormous respect by the populace at large. Kelly implies that this respect was not entirely deserved while other commentators have questioned Swift’s economic judgement and the extent of his contribution. Joseph Johnston (1938, 20) believed that Swift ‘was incapable of appreciating’ the extent to which currency difficulties contributed to Ireland’s misfortunes in the 1720s and placed too much emphasis on trade restrictions. Kelly, himself suggests that, such as it was, the economic content of the Drapier letters was parasitic on works of other authors such as Joseph Bindon (1724). Fauske (2008) is even more critical suggesting that Swift weighed in on economic matters he barely understood while Irish politicians got on with the more practical business of debating how to manage the affairs of the new provincial state of Ireland (Fauske, 2008, 151).8 Swift’s most complete discussion of Irish monetary issues is contained in issue no.19 of the Intelligencer where, in the guise of an Ulster member of parliament, he discussed the difficulties created by the shortage of coin and the failure to adjust the ratio between gold and silver in Ireland so that it was in line with that of Britain (Swift, 1955, 54-61). Swift advocated a realignment of the ratio between gold and silver and the creation of a public mint to coin gold, silver and copper.9 In the absence this, he pointed to the circulation of private notes and to the cutting of existing coins into quarters or halves as potential remedies. Although Swift may have been drawing on the work of others, it is clear that at least by the late 1720’s his understanding of Ireland’s monetary problems was a good deal more sophisticated than is sometimes allowed. James Kelly (1991, 27-28) speculates that Swift’s commentary in The Intelligencer may have encouraged the attempts made by Primate Boulter to seek approval for a devaluation of gold thereby removing the incentive to export silver. In this design, Boulter was initially thwarted by what he describes as a combination of merchants and bankers (Boulter, 1770, 239-249). However, when Boulter eventually succeeded in 1737, Swift was among his opponents. The grounds for Swift’s opposition on this occasion were that the lowering of gold would be beneficial to absentees (Swift, 1959, 119-120).
21Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726, has been variously described as a novel, a fiction, a satire of human nature and a parody of travel writing including Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (Hunter, 2003, 224). The writing of the work coincided with the emergence of Walpole as de facto prime minister in England and it is widely regarded as a damning critique of the activities of the Walpole government (Swift, 2012, xviii). As such, it has been suggested that it can be seen as an early instance of reverse anthropology, with the empire sitting in judgement on an England that liked to sit in judgement of others (Kiberd, 2000, 88).
- 10 Citations to Gulliver’s Travels GT refer to the 2012 edition edited by David Womersley and publishe (...)
22Some of the most incisive commentary on contemporary politics occurs in part II of Gulliver in the course of a question and answer session between Gulliver and the King of Brobdingnag which ends with the king’s comment that he could not ‘but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’ (GT II, 189; Downie, 2008)10. The commentary revolves around Swift’s preoccupation with issues relating to the financing of the deficit arising from war finance and the creation of a moneyed interest in opposition to the landed interest. The King of Brobdingnag is reported as expressing puzzlement that expenditure could sometimes exceed tax income by as much as a factor of two.
[I]f what I told him were true, he was…at a loss how a kingdom could run out of its estate like a private person. He asked me, who were our creditors? And, where we should find money to pay them? (GT II, 185-186)
23The king is also reported as expressing concern at the manner in which the gentry were drawn into financial speculation that placed their fortunes at risk:
He observed, that among the diversions of our nobility and gentry, I had mentioned gaming. He desired to know at what age this entertainment was usually taken up, and when it was laid down. How much of their time it employed, whether it ever went so high as to affect their fortunes. Whether mean vicious people by their dexterity in that art might not arrive at great riches, and sometimes keep our very nobles in dependence, as well as habituate them to vile companions, wholly take them from the improvement of their minds, and force them by the losses they have received, to learn and practice that infamous dexterity upon others. (GT II, 187-188)
24Speculation and projecting were intimately related and both were implicated in the inflation of the South Sea bubble and its subsequent collapse (Dickson, 1967, 145-146). The projecting theme is explored further in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels. The book reports on Gulliver’s sojourn on the island of Laputa which flies over a continent called Balnibarbi of which the king of Laputa is also the monarch. Balnibarbi was in a state of considerable decay, the houses in ruins and the people without food or clothes. This is blamed on the numerous projects promoted by the Academy of Projectors. By contrast, the estate of Lord Munodi containing neat farmer’s houses, vineyards, cornfields and meadows offered a delightful prospect (GT, 253). His house was a noble structure built according to the best rules of ancient architecture (GT, 254). Gulliver also noted that the king of Laputa would be ‘the most absolute Prince in the Universe’ if he could prevail on a ministry to join him; but these having their estates below on the continent, and considering that the office of a favourite had a very uncertain tenure would never consent to enslaving their country (GT, 246). Thus, in part, in Book III, Swift is simply harping on about his favourite theme, the reliability and solidity of the landed gentry contrasted with the ‘volatile spirits’ that characterised the world of projects and imaginary wealth. With Ireland in mind, he has a swipe at those who would enslave their country. He also disparages the projecting spirit of his age, in particular, the types of projects being put forward by the likes of William Petty whose insistence on a reliance on number, weight and measure was anathema to Swift. Referring to the propensity of mathematicians to give their judgments on matters of state, Gulliver noted that:
I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe, although I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences; unless people suppose, that because the smallest circle hath as many degrees as the largest, therefore the regulation and management of the world require no more abilities than the handling and turning of a globe. (GT III, 150)
25While mathematicians were not competent to pronounce on political matters, the proposals of political philosophers were also found to be impractical. Thus, Gulliver complained that the professors in the school of political projectors in the Grand Academy of Lagado―the capital of Balnibarbi―were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites on the basis of wisdom, capacity and virtue; of teaching ministers to consult the public good; and of rewarding merit, great abilities and eminent services. In keeping with one of Swift’s own complaints in relation to Ireland, Gulliver regarded these proposals as impossible chimeras and, as such, proof that there was ‘nothing so extravagant and irrational which some philosophers have not maintained for truth (GT, 275).
26In book four, Gulliver visited the country of the Houyhnhnms. These were rational horses who shared their world with the foul Yahoos―humans close to a state of nature. Gulliver explained to his Houyhnhnm master that the Yahoos were the governing animals in his country, England. He also explained the nature of its economy including the role of money as a store of value and means of exchange. The Houyhnhnm master took it for granted that all animals were entitled to their share of the productions of the earth and had difficulty understanding the rationality of the system described by Gulliver in which every rich man enjoyed fruits of the labour of a thousand poor and the bulk of the people were obliged to work every day for ‘small wages to make a few live plentifully’ (GT IV, 373). In addition to his difficulty in understanding the nature and role of trade, the Houyhnhnm master observed with some puzzlement that the Yahoo nation had been extremely successful in multiplying the original wants of its inhabitants and, having done so, seemed to spend their whole lives in vain endeavours to supply them by their own inventions (GT IV, 389). Gulliver sought to explain that trade was a source of luxury goods. He also explained that in an economy with a division of labour, people earned their living by producing goods for others and that quite ordinary goods represented the work of many hundreds of tradespeople:
The bulk of our people supported themselves by furnishing the necessities or conveniences of life to the rich, and to each other. For instance, when I’m at home and dressed as I ought to be, I carry on my body the workmanship of a hundred tradesmen, the building and furniture of my house employ as many more; and five times the number to adorn my wife. (GT IV, 376)
- 11 For Petty’s discussions of the division of labour, see Hull, 1899, I, 256-60 and II, 473-5. Henry M (...)
- 12 Passmann (1987, 171) notes that Swift’s library did not contain a copy of the Two Treatises. Howeve (...)
- 13 Mandeville’s Fable had its origins in a poem The Grumbling Hive: or Knaves Turn’d Honest published (...)
27What Swift is describing here is a society in which people’s basic needs are met through the sale and purchase of commodities. Before Swift’s time, William Petty and Henry Martyn had explained that specialization and the division of labour led to increased output and reduced the cost of production but they had not emphasised that, under an advanced division of labour, each individual had to rely on innumerable others for the fulfilment of his most basic wants.11 Locke had gone some distance in this direction in his Two Treatises by enumerating the various kinds of labour which entered into the production of a loaf of bread (Locke,  1988, 298).12 However, it was only in Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees that we find the vision of a society in which people depended on others for the fulfilment of their basic needs and this dependence was mediated by the sale and purchase of commodities (Mandeville, [1714,1723]131924, I, 169-170 and 356-358).
28Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels also contains Swift’s condemnation of Colonialism. Gulliver explains why he has not taken the steps which would allow the king to take possession of the territories he has ‘discovered’. The reasons given are that the countries concerned had no desire to be conquered or enslaved and did not abound in gold, silver, sugar or tobacco. Moreover, Gulliver ‘had conceived a few Scruples with relation to the distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions’:
For Instance, a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; and at length a boy discovers land from the top-mast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless people, are entertained with kindness, they give the country a new name, the take formal possession of it for the king, they set up a rotten plank or stone for a memorial, they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust; the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: And this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people. (GT IV, 441)
29Gulliver hastens to add that these comments should not be taken to apply to England whose attitude towards its colonies was exemplary in promoting Christianity and in providing the most able and least corrupt administrators. It is reasonable to conjecture that this was meant ironically especially since we know that the abuse of Irish administrative appointments was an issue to which Swift attached the greatest importance (Swift,  2001, II, 642-646). That said, Swift’s habit of constantly subverting positions he has articulated means that it is often difficult to know where he stood. Like his Anglo-Dutch contemporary Bernard Mandeville, Swift liked to explore the contradictions that emerged when things were looked at from different from different points of view. Mandeville found his answers to these contradictions in a theory of social evolution, whereas Swift sought them in the orthodox Christianity that he inherited.
30As will be shown below, a connection with Mandeville is also visible in 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 . The work, which is widely acknowledged to be amongst the finest satirical essays in the English language, is written in the form of an economic pamphlet and employs the methodology of political arithmetic to make its case that poverty could be alleviated in Ireland if the children of the poor were sold, aged one, as food for the rich. The proposer claimed that his project 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; increasing the nation’s stock by the amount of sustenance; providing income to the parents of the children as well as saving the costs of maintenance after one year; bringing custom to taverns; providing inducements to marriage; and causing parents to love their children because of the prospect of gain when they are sold. At one point in the satire the proposer claims that he could think of only one objection to his scheme namely that the number of the people in the kingdom would be thereby lessened. This, the proposer was willing to allow and he justified his position by saying that the suggested remedy was intended to apply only to Ireland. Consequently, he did not want to hear about other possible remedies:
Of the taxing of our absentees…Of using neither clothes’ nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury; Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness and gaming in our women; Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance; …Of quitting our animosities…Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly of putting a spirit of honesty, industry and skill into our shopkeepers. (Swift,  1955, 116-117)
- 14 Hayton’s examination of the politics of the Anglo-Irish elite during Swift’s time in Dublin shows t (...)
- 15 For a detailed discussion of these authors, see Kelly, 2000, part V.
- 16 George Berkeley’s Querist was first published in 1735. Like Swift, Berkeley argued for the promotio (...)
31Here, we have the standard list of remedies for Ireland’s economic problems which Swift had articulated in earlier works: import substitution, saving, taxing absentee landlords and honest dealing. Kelly (2003, 140) finds that Swift had nothing new to offer and that his complaints about trade restrictions and belief that Ireland could not hope to prosper within the British mercantile system ran counter to the thinking of other economic writers who were beginning to take the view that co-operation with the Imperial commercial system was possible (Kelly, 2003, 140).14 It is true that a number of authors including Arthur Dobbs, David Bindon and John Browne made the case that Britain’s own interest would be best served by the promotion rather than restriction of Irish trade.15 However, writing a few years later, George Berkeley queried whether or not the natives might not live cleanly and comfortably even if there was a wall of brass a thousand cubits high round this kingdom (Berkeley, 1735, QU140).16 Although Swift and Berkeley’s advocacy of import substitution is sometimes depicted as wrong―headed, their argument has to be assessed in the context of their time. For both authors, import substitution was linked to a condemnation of luxury consumption which was seen as depriving native industry of the demand needed to encourage local production. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, sophisticated commentators such as Henry Martyn had defended the import of textiles into England on the ground that it would facilitate the release of labour from employments which were inefficient and allow its transfer to industries where it could be put to better use (Martyn, 1701). However, such arguments were not relevant in the conditions of high unemployment pertaining in Ireland in the 1720s and it is hardly surprising that, in the circumstances, the creation of employment was a major preoccupation of Irish writers on political economy (Rashid, 1988).
- 17 Swift’s library contained a volume of works by Petty but none by Mandeville (Passmann and Heinz, 20 (...)
32As noted above, the Modest Proposal is in the form of an economic pamphlet and parodies the style used in proposals made by contemporary economic projectors. The form had already been used in The Swearer’s Bank in 1720 and Swift later used it in Answer to the Craftsman, . While Defoe’s Essay Upon Projects  and the proposals of contemporary projectors provided possible models for Swift, two works stand out as likely influences. These are: William Petty’s Political Arithmetic  and Bernard Mandeville’s A Modest Defence of Public Stews  both of which contained outlandish proposals.17 In Petty’s case, this was for the transportation of the Irish to England, while Mandeville had used a form of cost benefit analysis to argue for the legalization and regulation of houses of prostitution. The Preface to the Political Arithmetic also contained Petty’s famous declaration of his intention ‘ 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’ (Hull, 1899, I, 244). In A Modest Proposal, Swift adheres strictly to Petty’s strictures as to method by expressing himself in terms of number, weight or measure whenever possible and by adopting a dispassionate, economical style of expression though one that is considerably more eloquent than Petty’s.
- 18 Based on an examination of Petty’s manuscripts, McCormick (2009) has shown that for all their suppo (...)
33Several authors including Wittkowsky (1943), Letwin (1963), Hoppit (1996) and Phiddian (1996) have pointed to Swift’s parodying of political arithmetic. Less noticed is Petty’s immodest proposal for the transportation of all the moveables and people of Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland into the rest of Great Britain. Central to Petty’s proposal was his observation that land rents and therefore land values were higher in countries where the population was denser. Consequently, the removal of the Irish to Britain would be advantageous provided that food for the transported population could be raised with the same amount of labour as before 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). Although Petty excused his proposal by describing it as a dream or reverie rather than a rational proposition, there is evidence that he took the dream sufficiently seriously to present James II with a fully worked out proposal in 1687, although nothing ever came of the project (Brewer, 2011, 22-23).18
- 19 Besides Swift, several authors, most notably Molesworth (1723), expressed concern that reductions i (...)
34The connection with Petty’s outlandish proposal is even more salient in Swift’s Answer to the Craftsman , a satirical work which purports to answer objections to a scheme whereby French officers were granted facilities for recruiting to their army from Ireland. Swift suggested that this was beneficial since no alternative work was available. If sufficient numbers went abroad, the whole country could be turned over to tillage.19 Swift concluded the pamphlet by suggesting that this would allow a return to the practices of former times including barter and would allow Ireland to live ‘in amity’ with England.
- 20 The proposer suggests that if the parents were asked they would agree that it would have been a gre (...)
- 21 See McLaverty (2010, 116-119) for a discussion of Swift’s employment of the hint.
35We know from his comments in The Battle of the Books  and in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels that Swift had strong views about the limitations of human rationality and particularly mathematics. Nonetheless, he was also aware that the use of numbers could give an argument the appearance of objectivity and impartiality. Part of the effectiveness of the A Modest Proposal derives from this appearance. The proposer comes across as rational and reasonable. He demonstrates that his project will be beneficial for all concerned even the children sold for food.20 In addition, it will have positive by-products such as the reduction of voluntary abortions. The proposer shows himself to be willing to consider other alternatives although these are eventually dismissed as being economically flawed or open to censure on humanitarian grounds. Swift’s undermining of the proposer’s position is subtly done. There is no full-fronted assault just occasional hints that all is not well through apparently incidental discussion of lesser evils of which society does not approve.21
36Where Swift’s exposure of the contradictions in his proposer’s position was understated, Bernard Mandeville took the opposite course and enjoyed baiting the tender minded reader (Cook, 1973). Like Swift, Mandeville understood that how one evaluated matters varied depending on the point of view adopted and he exploited this fact in several of his works. For example, in Remark G of The Fable of the Bees, having first established the evil nature of the trade in alcoholic spirits, Mandeville proceeded to show that a good humoured man might look at things differently and view the trade as a universal comfort for the poor as well as a source of great wealth for some eminent distiller. Against the objection that one rich man was a poor equivalent of the misery of many thousands, Mandeville, in Swiftian mode, pointed out that such a man could be active in encouraging the reformation of manners and become the scourge of the very class of men to whom he owes his fortune (Mandeville, 1924, I, 86-93). The contradictory nature of social reality is also exposed in the course of Mandeville’s discussion of the hazards and hardships that were undergone in order to produce a piece of crimson cloth. These were such that it was difficult to conceive of a tyrant so inhuman that he should exact such terrible services from his innocent slaves. However, if we change the point of view and look at these labours as the voluntary actions of people in various trades, we shall see that far from being a burden, these employments are a blessing to be prayed for (Mandeville,  1924, I, 256-358).
37The main contradiction highlighted by Mandeville both in The Fable of the Bees and later in A Modest Defence of Public Stews was that evaluating actions by their results might lead to very different conclusions about their desirability than evaluating them using moral standards. In the Fable, Mandeville claimed always to favour virtuous action. This was partly for effect but perhaps also to pre-empt critics accusing him of promoting vice. However, in A Modest Defence of Public Stews, Mandeville explicitly made the case for consequentialist as opposed to moral evaluation arguing that it was permissible to do evil that good might come of it (Cook, 1973, 68-69).
- 22 See ‘A true and faithful narrative of what passed in London, during the general consternation’ in S (...)
38In making the case for consequentialist evaluation of proposed actions, Mandeville chose a topic which was guaranteed to offend, that is, the legalisation and regulation of prostitution (Cook, 1973). But for all that, 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. On the other hand, in A Modest Proposal, Swift’s proposer suggests something far more monstrous and immoral. In this, Swift can be seen as beating Mandeville at his own game by showing that there were really no bounds on what could be justified by consequentialist reasoning. Swift mentions Mandeville only once and then only incidentally.22 However, given Mandeville’s notoriety, it is unthinkable that Swift would not have been familiar with his main arguments and there is strong internal evidence to support this (Rawson, 2001). Moreover, a detailed comparison of the Modest Proposal and Mandeville’s Modest Defence indicates strong internal resonances between the two pamphlets (Prendergast, 2011; Moore, 2007).
39The Modest Proposal has traditionally been seen as a cry of despair in the face of government failure to address Ireland’s economic problems during a decade punctuated by economic crisis (Kelly, 1991). More recently, it has also been suggested that it was intended as an intervention in the budgetary debates of the 1729 Irish Parliamentary session and as an attack directed specifically at predatory loan schemes for taxpayer financing (Moore, 2007, 2010). There is no doubt that Swift was concerned about the condition or Ireland and the dysfunctional nature of its institutions in third decade of the eighteenth century. However, as George Wittkowsky (1943) argued there is good reason to believe that, in writing the Modest Proposal, Swift had in mind ‘theories as well as a condition’. These can be identified as the emerging market-based reality and the consequentialist economic arguments being advanced to rationalize it. Specifically, Swift sought to undermine the view that private vices produced public benefits and that otherwise intolerable situations were justifiable as long as they were viewed as the outcome of voluntary actions. The view of The Modest Proposal had a moral rather than a political purpose is supported by Herbert Davis (1964, 158-160). He argues that while, at first sight, it looks like political satire, this is not in fact the case. Swift, realising he has no longer any power as a politician, appeals to the conscience of mankind. Noteworthy too in this context is Mandeville’s broadside against Swift in the course of his defence of the use of Private Vices, Public Benefits as part of the title of Fable of the Bees. The attack occurs in A Letter to Dion  which was Mandeville’s response to Berkeley’s criticism of his views in Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher . Having argued that regardless of how shocking or ridiculous his title might seem, it was irrefragably true, Mandeville continued:
There are various ways, by which private vices may become public benefits, ways more real and practicable, than what, some time ago, was offer’d by that serious divine, whose religion and piety are so amply set forth in that undisguised confession of his faith, The Tale of a Tub. (Mandeville,  1953, 41)
40Since The Tale of a Tub was widely regarded as blasphemous, Mandeville was hitting Swift precisely where it hurt most. It is unlikely that he would have troubled to do that had Swift not landed blows of his own in proposing ways (not sufficiently real or practicable) in which private vices could become public benefits. Mandeville does not tell us what work he has in mind. Rawson is of the opinion that Mandeville is referring to Swift’s Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  but A Modest Proposal is surely a leading candidate for consideration.
41Swift bequeathed on Irish nationalism the slogan that ‘Ireland would never be happy ‘till a law were made for burning everything that came from England, except their people and their coals’ (Swift,  1948, 17). Swift’s presumption was based on his observation that English trade restrictions were distorting Irish development and an instinct that the consumption patterns of the Anglo Irish elite were unhelpful to the development of domestic manufacturing or indeed agriculture. As far as Swift was concerned, all of this showed in practice that private vices did not give rise to results that were beneficial to the public and drastic reforms were necessary before Irish economic development could begin to take place. Swift’s interventions in debates relating to Irish money and banking are more difficult matters. The opposition to Wood’s halfpence was mainly on political grounds and while Swift’s contribution to its success can be regarded as delaying a solution to Ireland’s shortage of coin, it can be argued that his opposition was legitimate given that other more palatable solutions were possible. While it is consistent with his wider views on financial matters, Swift’s opposition to the setting up of the Bank of Ireland is difficult to justify economically. In practice, however, Swift’s opposition came late and probably had little impact.
- 23 See Geary and Prendergast, 2008 and Prendergast, 2007 for a discussion of the treatment of informat (...)
42Although economic writers of the early eighteenth century may not have viewed the economy as a self-regulating system, an understanding of the importance of incentives was becoming quite widespread.23 In A Modest Proposal and in his economic and historical writings, Swift showed a keen awareness both of the incentives created by various policies and institutions and how these influenced outcomes. In so far as he wrote about the condition of agriculture, he argued that the short leases prevalent in Ireland discouraged the improvement of land since tenants could be certain that on the expiration of their lease, the rent would be raised in proportion to the improvements that they had made (Swift,  1948, 21;  1955, 17-18). Swift also has to be credited with one of the earliest statements of the principle that a tax or tariff may be set so high as to reduce revenue below what a lower rate would raise (Swift,  1955, 20-21; Bartlett, 1992). Although Swift reserved his strongest criticisms for landlords and local elites, he had robust views about the giving of alms and thought that they should be severely restricted so as not to encourage the increase of beggary. Swift’s own alternative was an early example of microfinance designed to provide for the poor while encouraging rather than discouraging industry. Although Samuel Johnson thought that Swift was being unrealistic in insisting that repayments should be made on time, modern commentators acknowledge that Swift was addressing the problems of adverse selection and moral hazard which still remain ubiquitous in micro-finance (Johnson, 1894; McPhail and Rashid, 2011, 37-40).
43Despite his role as the leading advocate on behalf of Irish manufactures, Swift was more than ready to criticize producers for failing to improve their products and their custom of cheating either as to prices or goodness (Swift;  1948, 17;  1948, 235;  1955, 116-117). Swift’s advice to the weavers was that they should try to improve the reputation of their goods. He reminded them that no buyer of common sense would return to a shop where he had been defrauded. Swift also suggested that a number of substantial drapers should band together to guarantee the quality and price of their product. Any seller failing to fulfil the terms of the guarantee would be expelled from the group and this fact would be advertised (Swift,  1955, 69-70). Finally, in a sermon on doing good preached in 1724, Swift argued for the importance of public spirit and in doing so showed an understanding of the incentive issues relating to public goods and bads. According to Swift, the greatest damage to the kingdom (Ireland) had been the result of a few manufacturers imposing bad ware on foreign markets thereby ruining the trade (Swift, 1948, 235). Everybody thinks that his own decision is unimportant because he is only one of many among whom the loss is equally shared but everyone thinking in this way leads to serious consequences for which in Swift’s view the only remedy lay in the generation of public spirit (Swift, 1948, 236).
44Swift’s greatest strength as a political economist lay in his exceptional grasp of the interaction between economic and political power structures. He was amongst the first to appreciate that the emerging financial institutions had important implications for the nature of political power and political stability. In the current financial crisis, political questions have begun to be posed about regulatory failure and political capture. From the outset, Swift appreciated that financiers would only lend to governments if the governments could credibly commit to pay the interest on the loan and eventually the capital sum. This meant that those financing the state’s debt had an interest ‘to preserve that government which they trusted with their money’. Swift sometimes wrote as if he believed that politicians developed the financial interest with a view to creating a constituency which would maintain them in power which might possibly have been going too far. The important thing, however, is his appreciation of the nature of the link not just between a debtor parliament and its creditor citizens but also between debtor parliament and its wider tax paying citizenry. Swift would not have been surprised by political capture. He would have been surprised that anyone would expect otherwise.
45Because satire requires the identification of internal contradictions, the art of the satirist requires the grasping of wholes, parts and their dynamics in the manner of a comprehensive social science (Davis, 1988, 308-309). Swift’s writing has been traditionally regarded as an important historical source but this has been challenged by Cullen (1967) and more recently by Fauske (2004). In essence, their argument is that things were not as bad as Swift made out; that Swift’s economic understanding was limited; and that if he had Ireland’s economic interests at heart, he would have supported whatever reforms were achievable in the political conjuncture of the period. It would seem, however, that it was attitudes such as this that drove Swift to write The Modest Proposal, the greatest of his satires. It is true that a bank and even Wood’s halfpence could have helped to alleviate the problems with a dysfunctional currency but the main obstacles to development: the lack of investment, the distortions of trade; the drain of resources to absentees would remain. The Modest Proposal can be regarded as saying if you really want to do something to solve the problem of poverty and unemployment while changing nothing much this is the sort of thing you can do. You may think this is preposterous but your own proposals are just as monstrous because they will achieve nothing at all.
46It is generally accepted that Gulliver’s Travels is written as a parody of travel books but there is disagreement in the literature about the extent to which a critique of travel books was part of its purpose (Deane, 1986, 9-12; Rawson, 2005, x-xi). The same applies to The Modest Proposal. Wittkowsky (1943) was of the view that it was concerned both with a theory and a condition while others e.g. Landa (1944) suggested that, although the proposal is a parody of contemporary economic writing, the economic form is merely the vehicle and not itself the main subject of the critique. Regardless of the view taken on this question, there can be no doubt that Swift was aware that the emerging forms of economic analysis involving quantification and consequential reasoning meant that moral issues could be ignored. By his choice of subject matter, Swift placed them central stage. In doing so, whether by design or otherwise, he produced not only a critique of the voluminous contemporary pamphlet literature advocating various improvements but also the finest critique of consequentialism that ever has been written.
I am grateful to the editors and anonymous referees of this journal for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.