The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Hess, Karl (1923-1994)

Karl Hess, a libertarian author, activist, and publicist, was a popular libertarian speaker and movement personality in the late 1960s through his death in 1994. He edited the Libertarian Party’s official newspaper, LP News, from 1986 to 1989, and he was the father of Karl Hess, Jr., who writes libertarian works on property rights and the environment.

Hess began his career as a reporter for the Washington Star and wrote for various D.C.-area newspapers in the early 1940s. He became an editor of various magazines through the 1940s and early 1950s, including Aviation News, Pathfinder (where he was religion editor), and Newsweek (where he was press editor). His first consuming political interest was anticommunism, which he pursued avidly while at Newsweek. He lost his job there for signing his name and Newsweek affiliation to an ad defending Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist actions. Hess wrote in his posthumous autobiography, Mostly on the Edge, of his involvement in aborted schemes to run guns to a non-Castro enemy of Cuban dictator Batista and to enlist the Mafia’s help in hijacking money en route from the Soviet Union to American communists.

Hess came to national political prominence with the Republican Party by helping to write their 1960 and 1964 platforms. He was a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater during his 1964 presidential campaign. Despite popular misattribution, Hess was not the author of Goldwater’s famous “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice …” phrase, which was in fact contributed by Harry Jaffa. Hess wrote a book about the meaning of the Goldwater campaign, In a Cause That Will Triumph (1967).

After the Goldwater campaign, Hess went through personal and political changes that found him aligned more toward the culturally leftist end of the libertarian movement. Hess was not a theoretician or original political thinker. He believed that a defense of liberty could not rest on rationalist grounds, but ultimately was an aesthetic choice. He brought to the libertarian movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly its campus branches, a colorful Left-leaning revolutionary style that many found attractive, especially within the context of Vietnam War–era student unrest. He described himself as the “master of ceremonies” of the libertarian breach with the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom in 1969. He worked with the leftist Institute for Policy Studies from 1968 to 1970, and he was simultaneously an early partner with Murray Rothbard in the Libertarian Forum, a newsletter that chronicled and shaped the libertarian student activism of the period. However, he left abruptly due to conflicts with Rothbard.

Hess was known for an extraordinary personal charisma that won him admiration and friendship across both the libertarian and leftist spectrums. His 1975 book, Dear America, presented his post-Goldwater political philosophy, a libertarianism tinged with animus toward any large concentrations of money and influence, whether governmental or private. In the 1970s, Hess’s interests turned to advocating neighborhood self-sufficiency as a solution to the centralizing government tendencies of the time. In his 1979 book, Community Technology, Hess wrote candidly of some of the successes and of the many failures that attended his efforts to turn his Adams-Morgan neighborhood in D.C. into a self-sufficient community through rooftop hydroponic gardens and trout aquaculture in basements.

After a series of break-ins, Hess and his second wife, Therese, moved to Kearneysville, West Virginia, where he built his own home and continued his experiments in self-sufficient neighborhoods in a rural setting. Hess’s move to West Virginia led to his taking up commercial welding, and he employed his new skill in creating a number of sculptures. He regarded his new vocation as consistent with the view that human technologies have been more important to the spread of liberty than political philosophers or ideologues. From 1980 to 1985, he edited a newsletter titled Surviving Tomorrow, in which he emphasized small-scale alternative technologies over big centralized ones. In a fit of libertarian purity, in 1969, Hess refused to pay taxes and wrote a letter to the Internal Revenue Service telling them why. This move created legal problems for Hess for the rest of his life, and he was unable to have any legal income, which would have been immediately confiscated.

In his later years, Hess became involved with the Libertarian Party, editing its newspaper. For most of his waning years in West Virginia, he was ill with recurring heart disease; in 1992, he underwent a full heart transplant, which limited his productivity. He also was a founding editor of Liberty magazine, a still-surviving libertarian movement journal launched in 1987.


Further Readings

Hess, Karl. In a Cause That Will Triumph: The Goldwater Campaign and the Future of Conservatism. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

———. Community Technology. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

———. Dear America. New York: Morrow, 1975.

———. Mostly on the Edge: An Autobiography. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999.

Originally published .