Author’s note: In 1729, Jonathan Swift published "

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick."  In the satirical piece, Swift made the modest proposal that the problem of poverty could be alleviated through a simple solution: cannibalism. If the poor would sell their children to the rich as food, Swift argued, various economic problems would be solved. The fictional piece below, while not advocating cannibalism, nevertheless applies Swift’s brand of disciplined rationalism to the economic challenges of modern society, showing that solutions are attainable if we are only willing to follow a path of logic.

A Modest Proposal

True epiphanies are extremely rare, especially for secular humanists. Yet, like Paul on the road to Damascus, I was recently confronted with a life-changing truth that has shattered my previous views of the world. It happened suddenly and without warning, at the New Hampshire vacation home of Antonin Roberts, a wealthy venture capitalist from suburban Boston who is considering running for public office. Antonin and his wife, Ayn, are members of what many today would call the “one percent,” but their immense wealth has done nothing to diminish their natural charm and good manners.

Antonin and Ayn knew that I, as a humanist with strong progressive leanings, was averse to their political and economic views, and perhaps because of this they seemed especially eager to engage in discussion. I never expected to be persuaded by their arguments but, as one who appreciates well-grounded logic and rational analysis, I must say that I found myself in awe of Antonin’s flawless reasoning.

As we began to chat, the first thing Antonin pointed out is that the paradigm of the “99 percent versus the one percent” is entirely wrong. Very humbly, he insisted that he, as a wealthy man and successful capitalist, is not a job creator. “The real job creators are not rich individuals at all,” he explained. “No, the real job creators are the non-human people.”

Seeing that I was bemused, Antonin got right to the point: “Corporations!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you see? Corporations are the real job creators. Almost everyone in the private sector works for a corporation today. Our economy is run by large, multinational corporations with revenues in the billions of dollars, and they are the real job creators.”

It was difficult to argue with this statement. In America, corporations are indeed non-human people—and they do in fact employ almost everyone outside of government.

Antonin could see that I wasn’t rebutting his argument at all, and this only seemed to give him more confidence. As Ayn passed the Brie, he continued: “If corporations are the real job creators—and they are—we need to do everything possible to empower them.”

I didn’t like that statement, so I could see I needed to slow him down. “Don’t we already give them enormous tax breaks?” I pointed out. “And subsidies—the oil industry alone gets $2 billion a year in government subsidies. Not to mention contracts—most large multinationals feed off of huge government contracts, especially defense contracts. Doesn't that empower them enough?”

I had no time to enjoy a sense of satisfaction, because Antonin shot right back. “That’s job creation!” he exclaimed, almost jumping out of his chair. “That’s exactly what I mean! You see, the people who really produce in this country are the corporations! Where would we be without them?”

I didn’t immediately respond, but instead tried to understand where Antonin might be going with this argument. At this point Ayn, seeming as confident as her husband, urged him on. “Antonin thinks we should do more to help the job creators,” she said. "Tell our guest about your proposal, dear.”

The conversation was energizing Antonin, and I could see that he could hardly restrain himself. He leaned forward and looked at me with a friendly smile. Then, quite seriously, he said just three words:

“The Thirteenth Amendment.”

As a lawyer, of course I know that the Thirteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War, outlawed slavery. But for the life of me I couldn’t understand its relevance here.

Seeing my puzzlement, Antonin continued. “The job creators can use the Thirteenth Amendment to save America,” he said. After a brief pause to allow me to ponder what he was saying, he continued: “You see, everyone thinks the Thirteenth Amendment makes involuntary servitude illegal, but they forget the words in the middle.”

“The words in the middle?” I asked.

“Yes, the words in the middle!” Antonin exclaimed, obviously excited to be educating me. Jumping to his feet, raising a finger in the air to punctuate the moment, he quoted the constitutional language: “EXCEPT AS A PUNISHMENT FOR CRIME!”

He was right. The Thirteenth Amendment, read literally, does not absolutely ban slavery. Its text reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…”

This conversation was starting to trouble me, even more so because I still didn’t understand exactly where Antonin was going with it.

“Don’t you see?” he asked. “The job creators can work in partnership with federal and local governments to ensure full employment, to guarantee that everyone has work! We just need to get tough on crime, and we can do it!”

He went on to explain how so many of America’s social problems—poverty, crime, drugs, juvenile delinquency, etc.—could be solved with involuntary servitude acting as the remedy, by simply allowing the job creators to utilize the nation’s corrections systems at full efficiency. With the nation’s prison population—already by far the largest in the world—acting as the labor force for corporate interests, profit growth would be assured.

“We could start with the illegal aliens,” he suggested, calling them “the low-hanging fruit.” A zero-tolerance on youth misconduct would be the next step, he explained, and the criminalization of poverty would follow that. And of course, drug addicts and the mentally ill could easily be assimilated into the corrections system as well.

All of this, he continued, would allow corporations to undercut cheap Chinese labor. “It’s a win-win,” he grinned, very satisfied. “The job creators increase profit margins, and everyone else gets work.”

Importantly, he pointed out, a privatized prison industry would be essential to his plan’s success. “Government is too inefficient, and corporations are geared for growth,” the successful capitalist explained. “Corporate management must show shareholders that revenues and profits are continuously growing. If we make the corrections industry itself—which will feed the rest of corporate America with workers—a market-driven engine, we can’t lose.”

Of course I tried to refute this logic, but how could I? I raised silly points, like the notion that government should endeavor to create an environment that allows personal fulfillment for the greatest number of human people; that the education and enlightenment of the general citizenry should be part of the equation; that the economic analysis should go beyond raw numbers on corporate profits.

These arguments, however, seemed rather quaint even as I formed them in my head, and even more so as they emanated from my mouth. Antonin just smiled and dismissively shook his head. “Never gonna work,” is all he said of my fantasies of participatory democracy, social safety nets, a critically thinking electorate, and economic justice.

In fact, the term “economic justice” seemed to make Ayn squirm. “They’re parasites,” she said, referring to the would-be workers of Antonin’s efficient economic model. “They can’t think critically, and they don’t deserve to forcefully redistribute the wealth that is generated by the real job creators.”

Honestly, I felt outmatched. Their reasoning was too sound. I had been blind for so long, but now I could see that corporate personhood was not just an important legal concept, but perhaps the central ingredient to an efficient American economic system. People—but not human people—would save the American system!

Still, something didn’t quite seem right, and I tried to put my finger on it. It seems that democracy should be about voters, I pointed out, but corporations can’t even vote—so is it possible that the non-corporate people (that is, humans) might object, through democratic action, to being enslaved?

Antonin and Ayn laughed simultaneously, but it was Ayn who answered my question. “You are naïve, aren’t you?” she replied. “Voting is incidental, the outcome a foregone conclusion so long as the playing field is controlled. The corporate job creators have all the money—they control the elections, the media, the legislatures, and the courts.”

I knew she was right, and had no response. We sat silently for a short time, all of us knowing who had won this debate. But finally I spoke up, meekly raising a natural question. “What can the ordinary person do?”

Ayn looked at me as if the question itself was absurd, then answered with one word as she burst into laughter:

“Pray!” she shouted, unable to contain herself, glancing over at Antonin to make sure he was enjoying the joke. Together, they roared with amusement and shouted the response again. “Pray!”

David Niose's new book is Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans.

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