To me the most disturbing part of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is not eating babies. Sadly, the most frightening part is that 237 years after Swift penned his pamphlet we still haven’t found a way to deal with the issue of poverty. More so than that, we are fighting the exact same ideas that have proven time and again they don’t work. Swift’s work is not only powerful within the context of 18th Century Ireland but to 21st Century United States as well. In fact, Swift’s pamphlet is so relevant to modern American politics that it is frightening.
A report came out recently that US citizens living abroad are giving up their citizenship in anticipation of a tax hike. One of Swift’s actual proposals included taxing absentees. Currently, the US does tax its absentee citizens but as with the rest of the tax code it is full of loopholes. Many will argue against a citizen paying US taxes when they are not living and working in the US. Here’s the thing. If you maintain a US citizenship, even if you have spent the past 20 years living in Switzerland, you have the right to vote in US elections. So, a person doesn’t live in the US, doesn’t work in the US, doesn’t contribute to the community and economy of the US, and doesn’t want to pay US taxes, but they want to vote in our elections. I get it. You are, technically, a citizen. But how can you have a voice in what happens in a country you do not reside in? Just to be clear, these absentee taxes do not apply to those in the US military nor do they apply to our ambassadors and embassy staff around the world. They still pay taxes, but they only pay US taxes because they work for the US and are paid by the US.
Naturally, there are those who object to the taxation of absentee citizens. The objection is ‘forcing’ an absentee citizen to pay US taxes on money earned in a foreign country when they already pay taxes to that foreign country. However, corporations and private citizens have taken advantage of the tax rates of other nations to avoid paying US taxes. Millions are shuffled overseas and out of our economy each year. A US corporation, located in China, believes that since they pay Chinese taxes they shouldn’t have to pay US taxes. The American CEO of that corporation believes that since he pays Chinese taxes he shouldn’t pay US taxes. And the US allowed that to happen.
The problem is these corporations and individuals want the benefits of being a US citizen without actually having to be included in the system. They want to avoid our taxes and regulations, including human rights issues, yet still be able to vote in our elections. It shouldn’t work that way. If you want the benefit of being a US corporation you should have to pay US taxes. If you don’t want to pay taxes in two countries, perhaps you should consider bringing your ‘American’ business to America. Problem solved.
Sadly, a good portion of Americans don’t feel this way. They have been led to believe that it is an unfair policy and that liberals are just trying to punish those who make money and create jobs. The problem is, those jobs are not jobs for Americans and they do nothing to help our economy or unemployment. They aid another country. Perhaps it is a punishment of sorts. But if it is a punishment then it is because of the greed that causes CEO’s to move factories overseas. Taking jobs away from Americans because China’s government allows them to pay employees $0.35 an hour. It is a punishment for moving factories overseas to avoid EPA regulations that protect our environment. Essentially, it is this; if you don’t want to follow our laws, don’t want to employ Americans because we demand a livable wage, if you want to have what is essentially slave labor for your workforce, we are going to make you pay for it. This is not the government going after ‘job creators,’ but the government going after those trying to avoid our laws.
And this, though on a smaller scale, is what Swift was referring to when he talked about “taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound.” Though in 1729 it was more about absent land owners charging outrageous rents on their properties and then living in England to avoid paying Irish taxes. See, these corporations (and even a few citizens) want to make American money but not pay American taxes. This is not a boon to our economy but a drain. By avoiding these taxes corporations are essentially taking revenue away from our government. Revenue that could be used to pay down our national debt and repair our roads and bridges. Revenue that could be used to pay our armed services what they are worth.
Speaking of manufacturing, another point of Swift’s was that “of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury.” Swift’s argument was an economic one and it is an argument that we have been having in the US for the last 40 years. No longer does America produce goods such as furniture, clothing, computer components, automobiles, tools…the list could go on. Instead those jobs have been shipped overseas and we are now importing the goods we used to make. Once upon a time, items were proudly stamped ‘Made in the USA.’ Good luck finding that now. Odds are, the majority of what you own was produced in a third world country halfway across the globe.
Clothing is imported from Pakistan, China, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, and about a dozen other countries in-between. That shirt you are wearing probably came from Asia. Right now, the United States is responsible for 21% of the world’s imports on clothing. Let’s break that down. Of all the clothing exports, from all over the world, the United States buys 21%. Stop and think about how many jobs it would create to cut our imports in half and make clothes right here. Imagine the boost to our economy. Why are we not making our own clothes?
The reason is the myth of ‘free trade.’ ‘Free trade’ is a trade policy that doesn’t apply tariffs to imports, subsidies to exports, or require quotas. Essentially, a regulation free trade policy. See, a few believe that unrestricted trade creates jobs and makes money, which it does. For a select few. ‘Free trade’ is the reason behind all the policies that allow our manufacturing jobs overseas. In fact, ‘free trade’ encourages this move. Manufacturing jobs created the middle class and ‘free trade’ destroyed it. Many of these other nations have trade restrictions. That means other nations limit what they buy from us but we buy from them as much as we want. This is supposedly ‘free trade.’ We import more than we export and also import more than we make. This is why our debt is so high. And the only people that benefit are those that control those trade routes. Say you run an import/export business. The last thing you want is a tariff (tax) on the thing you bring into the country. You also don’t want quotas, restrictions limiting how much you can import. These things cost you money. In the ‘free trade’ economy you are rolling in the dough. But the guy that used to make mother boards for Apple gets screwed because now Apple doesn’t have to pay an import tariff on goods it manufactures in other countries. So, not only does Apple get to reap the benefits of an unregulated employment market but they also get to avoid a number of taxes doing so.
Restrictions are not socialist nor are they communist. They are simply good business. If you create a business that buys more than it sells you won’t be in business very long. Yet that is exactly what we have done to our country in the interest of ‘free trade.’ We have increased our imports to the point that they are not only costing jobs but becoming a burden to our economy as well. Sadly, this is exactly the economic point Swift was making in 1729; “of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.” Basically, he is stating that corporations will look to cheat you in any way they can. In 1729, Swift argued to regulate business and trade in order to boost the economy and 237 years later many are still fooled that ‘trickle-down,’ ‘free trade’ economics works. That, my dears, is what we call a tragedy.
Along with Swift’s economical solutions he also presented a few social ones as well. “Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken.” This is probably the most important and most relevant of Swift’s proposals to today’s environment. We need to stop fighting among ourselves. Like today, in Ireland 1729 there were two factions of politics. Like today, those two factions did more fighting then problem solving. Swift cautioned that continuous infighting would weaken the nation, leaving it open not only to attack but also occupation. Swift was giving a historical lesson, pointing to the 70 CE sacking (and desecration) of Jerusalem and saying, “Look, this has happened before.” Given the tensions of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland to this day I am going to assume the advice was not heeded. But Swift was right. Fighting amongst ourselves: democrat/republican, liberal/conservative, Christian/agnostic weakens us as a nation. It leaves us open to attack from our enemies who want, more than anything, for us to be divided amongst ourselves. The reason why is simple. An America united is nearly impossible to beat. When we worked together (like we did during WWII) we not only helped defeat an oppressive regime, but we also created new goods and technologies that expanded the quality of life and prosperity throughout the world. That isn’t happening anymore and it should be.
The fact that I can even look at a 237 year old document and make valid comparisons to our society and political climate proves we have some work to do. We have tried the ‘trickle down’ way, let’s see what happens if we tried it Swift’s way. Just once. Our faults as human beings, as a collective society, are the reasons that classic works should be taught. They show us a picture of the past that we can compare to our own and say, “Something isn’t right.” It may have been written two centuries ago, but A Modest Proposal proves that humans really don’t change all that much. Sure we have better technology and figured out slavery is a bad thing (something that only took us about 8000 years to figure out), but there are places where we are still lacking. Holding an economic perspective from the 18th Century is one of them. Works like Swift’s need to be taught in the hopes that a generation will come along that will understand the flaws of the past and seek to keep them from becoming flaws of the future. If politicians of today want to solve America’s economic and employment woes they need look no further than to a document that predates even our own constitution. Sad, but true.
Swift teaches a lesson that can stand the test of time because it is universal. Treat people with kindness and respect, have sympathy for their plight, and do what you can to care for them lest someone comes along and thinks it is okay to eat their babies. After all, it’s not like they are real people. Extreme, yes, but sometimes people need to be slapped upside the head with a notion so utterly appalling that they begin to rethink their viewpoint.
Just think, if Swift’s ideas had been applied to US racial tensions, how many people would not have been murdered simply for the color of their skin because someone, somewhere thought it was ok. After all, it’s not like they were human. Or more recently, would victims like Matthew Shepard still be with us had someone, somewhere not thought it was ok to kill a gay man…because it’s not like he was human.
Swift’s essay is brilliantly satiric and at times hilarious in its irony. Yet it is also a morose tale about human behavior. How cruel it is and how little it changes. A Modest Proposal is relevant today not because politics sucks, but because humans still have a tendency to hate and dehumanize what they don’t understand. What is different. In America, a country of immigrants, a country full of, ‘other’ Swift’s lesson is one that is vital to our survival as a society.