Joseph Stack Suicide Note's 'Capitalist' Citation

At the end of his suicide note, Joseph Stack, the man who yesterday flew a plane into a building in Austin that housed an IRS office, cited what he called "the capitalist creed": "From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed." Some of the bloggers seeking the line's origins have attributed it to the late British essayist Henry Fairlie. This is only partly accurate, and the difference is telling. The line identified by the bloggers appeared in a 1987 essay Fairlie wrote for The New Republic about the greed and shoddy morals of televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell. Specifically, he criticized Oral Roberts for accepting $1.3 million from Jerry Collins, the owner of two dog-racing tracks in Florida:

At some point between Fairlie's writing his story and Stack's writing his letter, the context and the wording changed. Fairlie didn't use the phrase "capitalist creed." He also wrote, "To me according to my greed," not, as the suicide note has it, "To each." Fairlie inveighed for years against the perils of capitalism (as a tory, he believed its unchecked power coarsened and destabilized society), but in the passage echoed by Stack's note, he was denouncing the capitalistic tendencies of televangelists, not capitalism itself.

There's another, larger way in which Fairlie's writing is pertinent to this ugly episode. Since Stack's suicide note hit the Web, the left has been trying to present him as a paragon of radical right-wing beliefs, and the right is painting him as a tribune of the left. The heterodox nature of Stack's complaints matters less than the general thrust of his note: he was attacking the government of the United States. Discontent with the political system comes from every point on the spectrum, to be sure, but in the last 40 years, voices along one stretch of that spectrum have done an outsize job of fostering it. No one diagnosed the dangers of this ideology or foretold its consequences more succinctly than Henry Fairlie.

Fairlie was known in his native England as one of the country's leading conservative voices. Until his death in 1990, he called himself a tory, by which he meant he believed that a strong central government was the people's best defense against abrupt, disruptive change, whether from radical ideas or big business. Politics, he maintained, was "essentially good," and politicians "the most hopeful messengers of a society's will to improve." When he arrived in America in the 1960s, however, he was appalled to find no trace of tory respect for government among conservatives, the people whom he expected to know better.

There was something profoundly unconservative about the sort of Republican who lined up behind Goldwater and Reagan, Fairlie believed: he "does not defer even to the country's institutions. If one of these institutions, such as the Supreme Court, makes decisions he detests, he will defame that institution." The language of conservatism is rife with respect for tradition, of course, but Fairlie didn't buy it. It was, he wrote, "trivially moral, falsely patriotic; family cheapening, flag cheapening, God cheapening." By turning a free-floating, anti-establishment fervor in society into a campaign tool, Fairlie believed, the GOP fostered a culture that had "no traditions to which to appeal; no habit of deference to authority; no patience with the bridle of institutions." The result would be a people who were "ungoverned and unfree, and so in the end ungovernable."

Most of the quotations in that paragraph come from an essay Fairlie wrote for The Washington Post after he watched, aghast, as the 1980 GOP convention nominated Reagan. When I assembled the stories that make up Bite the Hand That Feeds You, a new anthology of Fairlie's work, I almost left it out. (Many fine essays, like the attack on televangelists, didn't fit.) The column's dark warnings about how societies fall because of fascism percolating up from the right seemed to me overheated. But with each week that goes by, as the rhetoric of antigovernment protest gets more violent, and even the leaders of the GOP appear to be at a loss for what to do about it, Fairlie's predictions seem more and more on the money.