Bart Wilson  

Lilliputian Competition Authority

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This fall my student reading and dinner group is concurrently reading Personal Knowledge and Gulliver's Travels (beautifully annotated by Asimov).

I have been fascinated with Gulliver's Travels since high school but it has been several years since I last read it. This time I was particularly struck in Part One, Chapter 6 by Swift's satire of the Whig's legal priorities:

There are some laws and customs in this empire very peculiar; and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear country, I should be tempted to say a little in their justification...

They look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death: For they allege, that care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man's goods from thieves; but honesty hath no fence against superior cunning: And since it is necessary that there should be a perpetual intercourse of buying and selling, and dealing upon credit; where fraud is permitted or connived at, or hath no law to punish it, the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage. I remember when I was once interceding with the King for a criminal who had wronged his master of a great sum of money, which he had received by order, and ran away with; and happening to tell his Majesty, by way of extenuation, that it was only a breach of trust; the Emperor thought it monstrous in me to offer, as a defence, the greatest aggravation of the crime: And truly, I had little to say in return, farther than the common answer, that different nations had different customs; for, I confess, I was heartily ashamed.

My inner dialogue with the book goes something like this:

Do I want to understand Swift's satire? It bites.
You know you want to figure it out.
Yeah, those Lilliputians are ridiculous.
I know, they're miniature people.
Lilliputians punish fraud with death. Damn, Swift, that's clever. [Chuckle]
Are you sure you want to laugh at the Lilliputians?
Oh, I'm more honest with myself than that simpleton Gulliver.
Honesty hath no fence against superior cunning. Do you get it?
Haha. Those Lilliputians...Doh.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
johnson85 writes:

I give up. I don't know if I'm missing context, or am just an idiot, but I don't get the satire. The argument about making fraud a greater crime than theft seems reasonable to me. I can understand not buying it, but it doesn't seem crazy.

Was Swift making fun of Whig's because they thought fraud was less of a crime than theft?

Or am I the exact type of person that Swift is making fun of?

Bart writes:

A snippet is hard to get into the mindset of Swift's satire. Of course wealthy businessmen, the priority of the Whigs, can afford to defend their property against thieves, so why protect the property of the poor. Go after fraud instead. Viciously.

The notion that Lilliputian society is a culture of honesty is also laughable. Besides being downright duplicitous, Gulliver reports earlier that the Lilliputians have to reward citizens to follow the law. Notice how Swift gets the reader to identify with the Emperor when Gulliver uses a case of theft as his example of a fraud, a breach of trust, to question Lilliputian priorities. Oh, Gulliver.

Tracy W writes:

Gulliver didn't think of the point that trade is very often a repeated game, giving an advantage to the honest trader.

Arthur_500 writes:

The Swiss have pretty harsh penalties for certain white collar "crimes," one of which is bankruptcy. Fraud certainly is worse than breaking and entering because there is no defense against those who have superior information and mis-use it. the key is that they mis-use it.

We all understand if I tell you a pill will make you smarter and more agreeable to women I am mis-using information that I know (it is a lie). bUT WHAT ABOUT having superior information? An automobile salesman has information that you are not privy to and they intend to deceive you but would that be considered fraud? (Please ignore the easy response to that one. We would all like auto salesmen to be flogged)

Trust is an ideal we all want others to aspire to while a look in the mirror finds that person often wanting.

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