A Modest Proposal is a viciously satiric essay that suggests a solution to the poverty of Ireland in the early 1700s: rich men and women should simply eat the children of beggars. The essay lists the various delicious ways in which babies can be prepared for consumption, and lays out a logical plan for breeding and rearing them; it also explains the various ways in which the economy would benefit from this new commodity. The proposal skewers the heartlessness displayed toward Ireland's poor at the time.
Robert Phiddian's article "Have you eaten yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal" focuses on two aspects of A Modest Proposal : the voice of Swift and the voice of the Proposer. Phiddian stresses that a reader of the pamphlet must learn to distinguish between the satiric voice of Jonathan Swift and the apparent economic projections of the Proposer. He reminds readers that "there is a gap between the narrator's meaning and the text's, and that a moral-political argument is being carried out by means of parody".
While Swift's proposal is obviously not a serious economic proposal, George Wittkowsky, author of "Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet", argues that to understand the piece fully, it is important to understand the economics of Swift’s time. Wittowsky argues that not enough critics have taken the time to focus directly on the mercantilism and theories of labour in 18th century England. "[I]f one regards the Modest Proposal simply as a criticism of condition, about all one can say is that conditions were bad and that Swift's irony brilliantly underscored this fact".
At the start of a new industrial age in the 18th century, it was believed that "people are the riches of the nation", and there was a general faith in an economy that paid its workers low wages because high wages meant workers would work less. Furthermore, "in the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry". In those times, the "somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a commodity".
Louis A. Landa presents Swift's A Modest Proposal as a critique of the popular and unjustified maxim of mercantilism in the 18th century that "people are the riches of a nation". Swift presents the dire state of Ireland and shows that mere population itself, in Ireland's case, did not always mean greater wealth and economy. The uncontrolled maxim fails to take into account that a person who does not produce in an economic or political way makes a country poorer, not richer. Swift also recognises the implications of such a fact in making mercantilist philosophy a paradox: the wealth of a country is based on the poverty of the majority of its citizens. Swift however, Landa argues, is not merely criticising economic maxims but also addressing the fact that England was denying Irish citizens their natural rights and dehumanising them by viewing them as a mere commodity.