Tax protester and gun smuggler Hess (1923-1994) became a successful journalist who made a well-publicized intellectual journey from Goldwater speechwriter to libertarian compatriot of Murray Rothbard. Along the way, he became an exceptionally graceful author, putting fundamental issues about as well as they could be put.
He was often described as the “most beloved libertarian.”
Hess was editor of Libertarian Party NEWS from 1986-1990 and afterward served as editor emeritus. He was the author of more than a dozen books, including In a Cause That Will Triumph (1967), Dear America (1975), Neighborhood Power (1975) and Community Technology (1979). He also wrote Capitalism for Kids and was the subject of a 26-minute documentary entitled “Karl Hess: Toward Liberty.” The film won two Oscars in 1981, including one for best short documentary.
In 1964 he was the chief speech writer for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign.
Hess was born in Washington, DC, in 1923, the son of Josef Karl Hess and Thelma Snyder Hess. He was raised by his mother whom he later described as “the most unforgettable libertarian I ever met.”
Hess never finished high school, but was often described as one of America’s most original thinkers. “I loved education,” Hess said in a 1976 interview with Playboy magazine, “which is why I spent as little time as possible in school.” As a teenager, at 15 in fact, Hess went to work as a journalist-as a radio news writer for the Mutual Broadcasting System. By age 22, he was the assistant city editor at The New York Daily News, a position he was fired from within a year for refusing to write the obituary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “When [FDR] died I refused an order to work on the obituary stories extolling his Presidency,” Hess later wrote. “I regarded his regime as social fascism then and I still do.”
Hess then held a number of writing jobs, including news editor of Aviation Weekly magazine.
In 1948, Hess began speech writing for the Republican National Committee. He was then hired as press editor for Newsweek magazine, a position he held for five years. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hess wrote speeches for “every major Republican”-Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater-and even a number of Democrats, including Hubert Humphrey. In 1960 and 1964, he served a chief writer for the Republican national platforms.
In 1964, Hess became the chief speech writer for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. At one point during that campaign, Goldwater complained to reporters about the mechanics of a presidential campaign. When asked how he would prefer to run a campaign, Goldwater said, “I’d rent one of those little executive jets, and Shakespeare and I would just do it.” The man Goldwater was referring to as “Shakespeare” was Hess.
Upon hearing of Hess’s death, Goldwater issued a statement saying, “It is a sad loss. He was a very dear and valued friend, one of the finest writers I have ever known. I am going to miss him.”
Following the 1964 presidential campaign, Hess became a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, a Vietnam war protestor, and a tax resister. 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. Along with commercial welding, he also produced artistic metal sculptures.
In 1969, Hess wrote an article for Playboy magazine entitled “The Death of Politics.” In the article, Hess described his own libertarian philosophy. The article, written before the founding of the Libertarian Party, is often credited with having brought about a revival of the libertarian movement.
Hess then became involved with community-technology projects in Washington, DC, and traveled around the country lecturing on various appropriate technologies.
In 1975, Hess and his wife, Therese, moved from Washington to West Virginia, where they and his sons designed and built an energy efficient home.
In West Virginia, Hess found the life he had sought for so long. With family, neighbors, and friends, Hess lived a simple and happy life built around work-welding, writing, furniture repair, and lots more-and taking an active role in his community. Hess worked with local community technology groups, writer’s groups, vocational education students, and more.
He became an active participant in volunteer literacy programs, both as a tutor and state board member. Most of his many neighborhood friends knew nothing of his past political life until after the friendships had been long-established. In West Virginia, Hess realized his ambition to be a “good friend, good lover, good neighbor.”
“He has to be the most generous person who lives in the state,” said Steve Fesenmaier, head of the film services division of the West Virginia Library Commission. “He is a monument to the individuality of West Virginians.”
Throughout this period, Hess kept a hand in his “old” political life through speaking engagements at libertarian functions and on college campuses, and by writing for various publications, such as Harper’s, Reason, and Liberty magazines.
He was named editor of the Libertarian Party NEWS in 1986 and served in that capacity until 1990, when health problems slowed his activity.
In 1992, Hess agreed to serve as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for governor of West Virginia to call attention to the difficulties of ballot access in the state. When asked by a reporter what he would do if he actually won the election, Hess replied, “I will demand an immediate recount.”
His son, Karl Jr., edited his autobiography Mostly on the Edge (1999) which, among other things, provides an entertaining inside view of the libertarian movement during the last four decades. There’s also a generous selection of his libertarian essays, including “The Death of Politics,” “The Lawless State,” “Rights and Reality” and “Elitism in Defense of Virtue Is No Virtue.”
As Charles Murray wrote in the Foreword, Hess “was absolutely captivating. . . . He was just one hell of a fellow, wise and funny and phenomenally charming. . . . He apprehended truths.”
“My mother, without ever having heard the term as far as I know, raised me to be a libertarian. And in every job, or political or social cause in which I have been involved since 1938, when I turned 15 and went to work, it has been my libertarian urge, mother-taught, that has kept me reasonably ‘sane,’ self-esteeming, and secure enough to live my life on my own terms and not on someone else’s ideological or managerial leash.
Had my mother ever paused practicing libertarianism long enough to ponder it, I think she would have defined it in stern (Stirnerite?) terms of individualism. Liberty, to her, was simply being human to the hilt; being absolutely responsible for your own choices in life, questioning authority, being honest in all dealing with others, and never initiating force to get your way or condoning it for someone else to get their way.”
From “The Most Unforgettable Libertarian I Ever Knew,” Liberty, December 1987.