Karl Hess

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Karl Hess
Hess, Karl.jpeg
Personal Details
Birth: May 25, 1923
Death: April 22, 1994(1994-04-22) (aged 70)
Occupation: Writer
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Karl Hess (May 25 1923April 22 1994) was an American speechwriter, editor, welder, motorcycle racer, political philosopher, tax resister and libertarian activist. His career included stints on the Republican right and the New Left before he became an anarcho-capitalist theorist.[1]

Early Life

Hess was born in Washington, D.C. and moved to the Philippines as a child. When his mother discovered his father's marital infidelity, she divorced her wealthy husband and returned (with Karl) to Washington. She refused alimony or child support and took a job as a telephone operator, raising her son in very modest circumstances. Karl, believing (as his mother did) that public education was a waste of time, rarely attended school; to evade truancy officers, he registered at every elementary school in town and gradually withdrew from each one, making it impossible for the authorities to know exactly where he was supposed to be. He officially dropped out at 15 and went to work for the Mutual Broadcasting System as a newswriter at the invitation of Walter Compton, a Mutual news commentator who resided in the building where Mrs. Hess operated the switchboard. Hess continued to work in the news media, and by age 18 was assistant city editor of the Washington Daily News. He was later an editor for Newsweek (from which he was fired for refusing to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt's obituary) and The Fisherman. After that, he worked for the Champion Papers and Fibre Company, where his bosses encouraged him to get involved in conservative politics for the company's benefit. In doing so he met Barry Goldwater and many other prominent Republicans, thus beginning the G.O.P. epoch of his life.

Hess enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, but was discharged when they discovered he had had malaria in the Philippines.

Political Activities

As a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, Hess explored ideology and politics and attracted some public interest. He was widely considered to be the author of the infamous Goldwater line, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," but revealed that he had encountered it in a letter from Lincoln historian Harry Jaffa and later learned it was a paraphrase of a passage from Cicero.[2] Regardless of the line's origin, Goldwater spoke it in his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination and, according to Playboy magazine, the words alienated many voters and may have cost Goldwater the election. Hess was also the primary author of the Republican Party's 1960 and 1964 platforms. He later called this his "Cold Warrior" phase.

Following the 1964 presidential campaign in which Lyndon Johnson trounced Goldwater, Hess became disillusioned with traditional politics and became more radical. He began working as a heavy-duty welder and parted with the Republicans altogether; he criticized big business, suburban American hypocrisy and the military-industrial complex. Though well beyond college age, Hess joined Students for a Democratic Society, worked with the Black Panther Party and protested the Vietnam War.

During that time, Democratic President Johnson, apparently displeased with Hess for having been a Republican, ordered the IRS to audit him. When Hess asked if a certain deduction he had claimed was right, his auditor reportedly replied, "It doesn't matter if it's right; what matters is the law." Incensed that the auditor would see a difference between what was "right" and "law," Hess sent the IRS a copy of the Declaration of Independence with a letter saying that he would never again pay taxes. The IRS charged him with tax resistance, confiscated most of his property and put a 100% lien on his future earnings. When implementing the penalty, the IRS told Hess that he no longer would be permitted to possess money; he reminded them that without money he could not buy food and would soon die. The IRS said that was his problem, not theirs. Remarkably, Hess was never incarcerated on this matter, probably due to astute, pro bono legal representation and his status as a folk hero. He was supported financially thereafter by his wife and used barter to keep himself busy. Later, however, he expressed ambivalence about becoming America's most notorious tax resister and wrote that his act of civil disobedience could have effected dramatic reforms in tax law had 10 or 20 million of his fellow Americans joined him in defying the IRS.[3]

In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president and Barry Goldwater went to Washington as Arizona's junior senator. Hess, despite now being a member of the New Left, had recently written some speeches for Goldwater and resumed their close personal relationship; he had grown convinced that American men should not be forced into military service and urged Goldwater to submit legislation abolishing conscription. Goldwater replied, "Well, let's wait and see what Dick Nixon wants to do about that one." Hess despised Nixon almost as much as he admired Goldwater and could not tolerate the notion that Goldwater would defer to Nixon. Thus ended one of Hess's closest professional associations and significantly compromised one of his deepest friendships.

Hess began reading American anarchists largely due to the recommendations of his friend Murray Rothbard. Hess said that upon reading the works of Emma Goldman he discovered that anarchists believed everything he had hoped the Republican Party would represent, and that Goldman was the source for the best and most essential theories of Ayn Rand without any of the "crazy solipsism that Rand was so fond of."[4]

Hess and Rothbard founded Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought in 1965. It lasted until 1968. From 1969 to 1971 he edited the The Libertarian Forum with Rothbard.

In 1969 and 1970 Hess joined with others including Murray Rothbard, Robert LeFevre, Dana Rohrabacher, Samuel Edward Konkin III, and former Students for a Democratic Society leader Carl Oglesby to speak at two "left-right" conferences which brought together activists from both the Old Right and the New Left in what was emerging as a nascent libertarian movement.[5] Hess later joined the Libertarian Party which was founded in 1971, and served as editor of its newspaper from 1986 to 1990.

In 2020, he was inducted into the Hall of Liberty posthumously.

Back-to-the-lander and survivalist

Hess was an early proponent of the "back to the land" movement. His focus on self-sufficiency came about in part by government mandate. According to a Libertarian Party News obituary, "When the Internal Revenue Service confiscated all his property and put a 100 percent lien on all of his future earnings, Hess taught himself welding and existed on bartering his work for food and goods."[6]

In the early 1970s, Hess became involved in an experiment with several friends and colleagues to bring self-built and -managed technology into the direct service of the economic and social life of the poor, largely African American neighborhood of Adams-Morgan in Washington, D.C.. Afterward, Hess wrote a book entitled Community Technology which told the story of this experiment and its results. While much of the experimentation was successful in technical terms (apparatus was built, food raised, solar energy captured, etc.), the community, continuing on what Hess felt was a path of deterioration, declined to devote itself to expanding on the technology. Hence, in his view, the community got little value from the application of viable technology.

Subsequently, Hess and his wife, Therese, moved to rural Opequon Creek, West Virginia, where he set up a welding shop to support his household. He became deeply involved with local affairs there.

Hess wrote for and later edited a survivalist newsletter titled Personal Survival ("P.S.") Letter, which was published from 1977 to 1982 by Mel Tappan. Following Tappan's death in 1980, Hess took over editing and publishing the newsletter, eventually renaming it Survival Tomorrow. In the same time period, Hess authored the book A Common Sense Strategy for Survivalists.

Hess ran a symbolic campaign for Governor of West Virginia in 1992. When asked by a reporter what his first act would be if elected, he quipped, "I will demand an immediate recount."


  • Nature and Science (1958)
  • In a Cause That Will Triumph: The Goldwater Campaign and the Future of Conservatism (1967)
  • The End of the Draft: The Feasibility of Freedom (with Thomas Reeves) (1970) ISBN 0-394-70870-9
  • Dear America (1975) (autobiography)
  • Neighborhood Power: The New Localism (with David Morris) (1975)
  • Community Technology (with an introduction by Carol Moore) (1979)
  • A Common Sense Strategy for Survivalists (1981)
  • Three Interviews (1981)
  • Capitalism for Kids (1986)
  • Mostly on the Edge: An Autobiography (edited by Karl Hess, Jr.) (1999) ISBN 1-57392-687-6


Karl Hess: Toward Liberty is a documentary film which won the Academy Award for best short documentary in 1981, after having previously won a Student Academy Award. Another documentary prominently featuring Hess was Anarchism in America (1983).

See Also


  1. Hess, Karl. The Death of Politics, Interview in Playboy]], July 1976. Also available is Hess's autobiography, "Mostly on the Edge." "Laissez-faire capitalism, or anarchocapitalism, is simply the economic form of the libertarian ethic. Laissez-faire capitalism encompasses the notion that men should exchange goods and services, without regulation, solely on the basis of value for value. It recognizes charity and communal enterprises as voluntary versions of this same ethic. Such a system would be straight barter, except for the widely felt need for a division of labor in which men, voluntarily, accept value tokens such as cash and credit. Economically, this system is anarchy, and proudly so."
  2. Hess, Karl. Mostly on the Edge. Prometheus Books. 1999. Pp. 168 – 170.
  3. Gross, David (ed.) We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1434898253 pp. 437-441
  4. Interview with Hess in Anarchism in America, 1983. Available online at: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5896151564855675002
  5. BradSpangler.com » Blog Archive » Konkin’s History of the Libertarian Movement
  6. LP News Jun94 - Karl Hess: 1923-1994

External Links