The author invokes the “melancholly” and all-too-common sight of women and children begging on the streets of Ireland. These mothers, unable to work for their livelihood, “are forced to employ all their Time” panhandling for food. The children, also for want of work, grow up to be thieves, or else emigrate “to fight for the Pretender” (the son of James II, who lost the throne of England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688) or to seek their fortunes in the Americas. The author appeals to the general consensus that these beggared children are, “in the present deplorable State of the Kingdom, a very great additional Grievance.” He supposes that anyone who could devise a way to make these street children into productive members of society would be doing the nation a great service. The authors own “Intention,” he says, goes even further than providing for these children of “Professed Beggars”; his proposal includes in its scope all children “of a certain Age” whose parents, though they have not yet resorted to begging, are too poor to support them.
Having considered Irelands population problem for many years, the author has concluded that the arguments and schemes of others upon the subject are wholly inadequate. They have been, he says, “grossly mistaken in their Computation.” He offers some calculations of his own: a newborn infant can be supported for its first year on breast-milk and two shillings, a sum that can easily be obtained by begging. It is after this relatively undemanding first year, therefore, that Swifts proposal will go into effect. “I propose to provide for them in such a Manner, as, instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives; they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Cloathing, of many Thousands.” Another advantage of his proposal, Swift says, is that it will reduce the number of abortions and infanticides. He speculates that most women undertake these highly immoral practices “more to avoid the Expence than the Shame” of unwanted children.
The author fills out the background to his proposal with additional statistical data. In a national population of 1.5 million, there are probably 200,000 women of childbearing age. Out of these, 30,000 might be supposed to be financially able to maintain their own children. That leaves 170,000 “breeders.” Of these, perhaps 50,000 will miscarry or lose their children in the first year, leaving 120,000 children born of poor parents each year. “The Question therefore is, How this Number shall be reared, and provided for?” In the current state of the nation Swift asserts it to be impossible. They cannot be employed in a country that “neither build[s] Houses,…nor cultivate[s] Land.” Except for the exceptionally gifted, they will not be able to steal for a living until they are at least six years of age, “although, I confess, they learn the Rudiments much earlier.” A child under the age of twelve “is no saleable Commodity,” and even when they are old enough to be sold into servitude, children bring no very large price–certainly not enough to offset the costs involved in rearing them to that age.
Swifts opening paragraph offers a starkly realistic, although compassionate, portrait of families of beggars in Ireland. The first sentence gives a fairly straightforward and un-ironic description, but by the second sentence the author begins to offer judgments and explanations about this rampant beggary: the mothers are unable to work, and have been “forced” into their current poverty and disgrace. Swifts language here reverses the prevailing sentiment of his day, which held that if beggars were poor, it was their own fault. The reader is unsure at this point whether to take Swifts professed compassion for the beggars as earnest or ironic. The issue never becomes completely clear. In this passage, and in the tract as a whole, he tends not to choose sides; his stance is one of general exasperation with all parties in a complex problem. Swift is generous with his disdain, and his irony works both to censure the poor and to critique the society that enables their poverty. The remark about Irish Catholics who go to Spain to fight for the Pretender offers a good example of the complexity of Swifts judgments: he is commenting on a woeful lack of national loyalty among the Irish, and at the same time critiquing a nation that drives its own citizens to mercenary activity. He makes a similar stab at national policies and priorities with the aside that takes for granted that poor Irish children will not find employment, since “we neither build Houses,…nor cultivate Land.”
The reader is inclined at first to identify with the “proposer,” in part because Swift has given no reason, at this point, not to. His compassion in the first paragraph, the matter-of-fact tone of the second, his seeming objectivity in weighing other proposals, and his moral outrage at the frequency of abortion and infanticide–these characteristics all speak out in his favor as a potential reformer. Yet the depersonalizing vocabulary with which he embarks on his computations is calculated to give us pause. He describes a newborn child as “just drooped from its Dam” and identifies women as “Breeders.” Against this language the word “souls” (which ought to make sense as a way of talking about hapless human beings) takes on a wry tone when applied to Irelands now strictly statistical population. This language offers an early indication of the way the authors proposal reduces human beings alternately to statistical entities, to economic commodities, and to animals.
It becomes clear fairly quickly that this will be an economic argument, although the proposal will have moral, religious, political, and nationalistic implications. Despite his own moral indignation, when the author suggests that most abortions are occasioned by financial rather than moral considerations, he assumes that peoples motivations are basically materialistic. This is not, of course, Swifts own assumption; he presents a shockingly extreme case of cold-blooded “rationality” in order to make his readers reexamine their own priorities. Swift parodies the style of the pseudo-scientific proposals for social engineering that were so popular in his day. His piece is partly an attack on the economic utilitarianism that drove so many of these proposals. Although Swift was himself an astute economist, here he draws attention to the incongruity between a ruthless (though impeccably systematic) logic and a complexly human social and political reality. Part of the effect will be to make the reader feel that the argument is bad, without knowing quite where to intervene–to pit moral judgment against other, more rigidly logical kinds of argumentation.