This essay is widely held to be one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift's solution when he states, "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."
Readers unacquainted with its reputation as a satirical work often do not immediately realize that Swift was not seriously proposing cannibalism and infanticide, nor would readers unfamiliar with the satires of Horace and Juvenal recognize that Swift's essay follows the rules and structure of Latin satires.
The satirical element of the pamphlet is often only understood after the reader notes the allusions made by Swift to the attitudes of landlords, such as the following: "I grant this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children." Swift extends the metaphor to get in a few jibes at England’s mistreatment of Ireland, noting that "For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it."
In the tradition of Roman satire, Swift introduces the reforms he is actually suggesting by deriding them:
Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: 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 learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: 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: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: 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 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.
Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.
A Modest Proposal also targets the calculating way people perceived the poor in designing their projects. The pamphlet targets reformers who "regard people as commodities". In the piece, Swift adopts the "technique of a political arithmetician" to show the utter ridiculousness of trying to prove any proposal with dispassionate statistics.
Critics differ about Swift’s intentions in using this faux-mathematical philosophy. Edmund Wilson argues that statistically "the logic of the 'Modest proposal' can be compared with Marx's defense of crime in which he argues that crime takes care of the superfluous population". Wittkowsky counters that Swift's satiric use of statistical analysis is an effort to enhance his satire that "springs from a spirit of bitter mockery, not from the delight in calculations for their own sake".
Swift has his proposer further degrade the Irish by using language ordinarily reserved for animals. Lewis argues that the speaker uses "the vocabulary of animal husbandry to describe the Irish. Once the children have been commoditized, Swift’s rhetoric can easily turn "people into animals, then meat, and from meat, logically, into tonnage worth a price per pound".
Swift uses the proposer’s serious tone to highlight the absurdity of his proposal. In making his argument, the speaker uses the conventional, text book approved order of argument from Swift’s time. The contrast between the "careful control against the almost inconceivable perversion of his scheme" and "the ridiculousness of the proposal" create a situation in which the reader has "to consider just what perverted values and assumptions would allow such a diligent, thoughtful, and conventional man to propose so perverse a plan".
While Swift’s proposal is therefore obviously not a serious economic projection, George Wittkowsky, author of "Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet," argues that it is nevertheless important to understand the economics of Swift’s time in order to fully understand the piece. Wittowsky argues that not enough critics have taken the time to directly focus on the economics of Swift’s historical situation within which A Modest Proposal was written. He states that "if 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". According to Wittkowsky that has been the understanding most critics have settled with over the years of reading Swift's proposal. On the other hand, Wittkowsky states that it is beneficial for the reader to be familiar with the economics of mercantilism and the theories of labor in 18th century England in order to fully understand the background of A Modest Proposal. He explains that with 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 which paid its workers low wages—high wages meant workers would work less. Furthermore, "in the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry". Wittkowsky reminds us that it is important to remember that in the "Age of Swift" the "somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a commodity". We can better understand Swift’s satirical cannibalistic proposal when we take into account this idea in his time of the human being as a number or commodity.
It has been emulated many times as well. In his book A Modest Proposal (1984), evangelical author Frank Schaeffer emulated Swift's work in social conservative polemic against abortion and euthanasia in a future dystopia that advocated recycling of aborted embryos and fetuses, as well as some disabled infants with compound intellectual, physical and physiological difficulties. (Such Baby Doe Rules cases were then a major concern of the pro-life movement of the early 1980s, which viewed selective treatment of those infants as disability discrimination.)
In Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, which contains hundreds of private letters written by Thompson over the years, contains a letter in which he uses A Modest Proposal's satire technique against the Vietnam War. Thompson writes a letter to a local Aspen newspaper informing them that, on Christmas Eve, he was going to use napalm to burn a number of dogs and hopefully any humans they find. This letter protests the burning of Vietnamese people occurring overseas.
The show Sealab 2021 references A Modest Proposal by the character of Jodene Sparks. It was suggested as recommended reading when Debbie wanted a child.