Karl Hess

American journalist, writer and libertarian (1923–1994)

Karl Hess (born Carl Hess III; 25 May 192322 April 1994) was an American libertarian and speechwriter for Barry Goldwater.  He was also a free-market anarchist political philosopher, editor, welder, motorcycle racer, tax resister, atheist, and libertarian activist.  Although fundamentally a libertarian, his career included stints on the Republican right and the New Left.


  • The Federal government of the United States today is guilty of exactly every sort of infringement, abuse, and denial stated as intolerable by the Declaration of Independence. I cannot, in conscience, sanction that government by the payment of taxes.
    • Karl Hess, “Letter from Washington: My Taxes,” Libertarian, May 1, 1969, p. 3
  • We have the illusion of freedom only because so few ever try to exercise it. Try it sometime. Try to save your home from the highway crowd, or to work a trade without the approval of the goons, or to open a little business without a permit, or to grow a crop without a quota, or to educate your child the way you want to, or to not have a child. We all have the freedom of a balloon floating in a pin factory.
    • As quoted in “From Far Right to Far Left,” Tames Boyd, The New York Times Magazine (Sunday) (Dec. 6, 1970) p. 305
  • Whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up an apologist for mass murder.
    • As quoted in Why Americans Hate Politics, by E.J. Dionne, Jr., Simon & Schuster (2004) p. 267.
  • [Republicans in Hess's youth] represented the only strong anti-imperalist political position.  Anti-imperialist?  Republicans?  Uh-huh.  But Republicans were not smart enough to call it that.  They let it be labeled isolationism, as though they wanted the United States to sneak off the world stage, slam the doors, and bolt the windows.  The underlying Republican argument, that we should trade with everyone but not interfere with or intervene in their internal politics, was lost behind that unattractive label.
  • Radical and revolutionary movements seek not to revise but to revoke. The target of revocation should be obvious. The target is politics itself.”
    • “The Death of Politics”, Playboy (March, 1969).
  • Big business in America today and for some years has been openly at war with competition and, thus, at war with laissez-faire capitalism. ... The left's attack on corporate capitalism is, when examined, an attack on economic forms possible only in collusion between authoritarian government and bureaucratized, nonentrepreneurial business. It is unfortunate that many New Leftists are so uncritical as to accept this premise as indicating that all forms of capitalism are bad...
    • "The Death of Politics", Playboy magazine (March 1969)
  • Libertarianism is rejected by the modern left — which preaches individualism but practices collectivism. Capitalism is rejected by the modern right-which preaches enterprise but practices protectionism.
    • “The Death of Politics”, Playboy (March, 1969).
  • Libertarianism is clearly the most, perhaps the only truly radical movement in America.  It grasps the problems of society by the roots.  It is not reformist in any sense.  It is revolutionary in every sense.
  • The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.

    Much of that property is stolen.  Much is of dubious title.  All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system which has condoned, built on, and profited from slavery; has expanded through and exploited a brutal and aggressive imperial and colonial foreign policy, and continues to hold the people in a roughly serf–master relationship to political–economic power concentrations.

  • Libertarians are concerned, first and foremost, with that most valuable of properties, the life of each individual.  ...  Property rights pertaining to material objects are seen by libertarians as stemming from and...secondary to the right to own, direct, and enjoy one's own life and those appurtenances thereto which may be acquired without coercion.
  • Libertarians, in short, simply do not believe that theft is proper whether it is committed in the name of a state, a class, a crises, a credo, or a cliche.

    This is a far cry from sharing common ground with those who want to create a society in which super capitalists are free to amass vast holdings and who say that that is ultimately the most important purpose of freedom.

  • Libertarianism is a people's movement and a liberation movement.  It seeks the sort of open, non-coercive society in which the people, the living, free, distinct people may voluntarily associate, dis-associate, and, as they see fit, participate in the decisions affecting their lives.  This means a truly free market in everything from ideas to idiosyncrasies.  It means people free collectively to organize the resources of their immediate community or individualistically to organize them; it means the freedom to have a community-based and supported judiciary where wanted, none where not, or private arbitration services where that is seen as most desirable.  The same with police.  The same with schools, hospitals, factories, farms, laboratories, parks, and pensions.  Liberty means the right to shape your own institutions.  It opposes the right of those institutions to shape you simply because of accreted power or gerontological status.
  • There is scarcely anything radical about, for instance, those who say that the poor should have a larger share of the Federal budget.  That is reactionary, asking that the institution of state theft be made merely more palatable by distributing its loot to more sympathetic persons.

Anarchism in America (15 January 1983)

Directed by Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher.
  • Narrator:  What's your relationship with the IRS these days?
    Karl Hess:  [laughs]  Miserable.  Terrible.
    Narrator:  And why's that?
    Karl Hess:  Well, you know, they ask every now and then when I'm going to behave myself and I tell them never and I...
    Narrator:  Are you not paying federal taxes?
    Karl Hess:  Yeah, nothing.
    Narrator:  I guess they don't take too kindly to that?
    Karl Hess:  No, they think it's terrible.
    Therese Hess:  On the other hand, they're not being very active about it right now.
    Karl Hess:  Well, no, the last time he was here...
    Therese Hess:  It's like it's no fun anymore or something.
    Karl Hess:  Something like that.  The local people seem to take more of a kindly view as though they really think it's a rotten thing.  I'm not doing anybody any harm.  And...they seem to be more sensitive.  [laughs]  Or decent somehow.  I don't...I don't know, the federal people are...
    Narrator:  What can they do?
    Karl Hess:  Put me in jail.
  • Well, it's hard to tell on the basis of the Party's rhetoric, after all they're running for state office, but my experience is that most people who are in the Libertarian Party have pretty decent anarchist impulses, even if they do not say they are anarchists—most of them will say they are libertarians, at any rate.

    And one thing that is useful is that they have a fairly well-refined analysis of why they aren't conservative.  It took the New Left to do a proper analysis on American liberals, it seems to me, and I suspect that the libertarians are doing the best analysis of American conservatives.

    I think that they are quite good people, and that the Party contains within it probably more people of an anarchist tendency than any other organisation in the country.

  • [A]fter I got evicted from the Republican Party, I began reading considerably more of the works of American anarchists, thanks largely to Murray Rothbard...and I was just amazed.

    When I read Emma Goldman, it was as though everything I had hoped that the Republican Party would stand for suddenly came out crystallised.  It was a magnificently clear statement.  And another interesting things about reading Emma Goldman is that you immediately see that, consciously or not, she's the source of the best in Ayn Rand.  She has the essential points that the Ayn Rand philosophy thinks, but without any of this sort of crazy solipsism that Rand is so fond of, the notion that people accomplish everything all in isolation.  Emma Goldman understands that there's a social element to even science, but she also writes that all history is a struggle of the individual against the institutions, which of course is what I'd always thought Republicans were saying, and so it goes.

    In other words, in the Old Right, there were a lot of statements that seemed correct, and they appeal to you emotionally, as well; it was why I was a Republican—isolationist, anti-authoritarian positions, but they're not illuminated by anything more than statement.  They just are good statements.  But in the writings of the anarchists the same statements are made, but with this long illumination out of experience, analysis, comparison...it's rock-solid, and so I immediately realised that I'd been stumbling around inventing parts of a tradition that was old and thoughtful and already existed, and that's very nice to discover that—I don't think it's necessary to invent everything.

Foreword (1984) to The Market for Liberty (1970)

The Market for Liberty (1970) by Linda & Morris Tannehill.
  • The most interesting political questions throughout history have been whether or not humans will be ruled or free, whether they will be responsible for their actions as individuals or left irresponsible as members of society, and whether they can live in peace by volitional agreements alone.

    The fundamental question of politics has always been whether there should be politics.

  • Without the state there would be anarchy for that is, despite all the perfervid ravings of the Marxist Left and statist Right, all that anarchy means—the absence of the state, the opportunity for liberty.
  • The nation state has never been associated with peace on earth.  Its most powerful recommendation and record is, as a matter of fact, as a wager of war.  The history of nation states is written around the dates of war, not peace, around arms and not arts.  The organization of warfare without the coercive power of the nation state is simply unimaginable at the scale with which we have become familiar.

Quotes about Hess

  • Theodore H. White tells a remarkable story about Goldwater's chief speechwriter, Karl Hess.  Chief speechwriters of losing campaigns usually find a safe berth somewhere in the party machine, but not so Hess.  First, he applied for positions with conservative senators and congressmen—the very politicians who had been cheering him on a few months before.  Unwanted, he lowered his sights dramatically.  Could he perhaps work the elevators in the Senate or the House?  Still no luck.  The apostle of the free market was reduced to the ranks of the unemployed.  He enrolled in a night-school course in welding and eventually found a job working the night shift in a machine shop.
  • The basic problem I really have is that whenever I meet leftists in the socialist and Marxist movements, I'm called a petit-bourgeois individualist.  [audience laughs]  I'm supposed to shrink after this—  Usually I'm called petit-bourgeois individualist by students, and by academicians, who've never done a days work life [sic] in their entire biography, whereas I have spent years in factories and the trade unions, in foundries and auto plants.  So after I have to swallow the word petit-bourgeois, I don't mind the word individualist at all!

    I believe in individual freedom; that's my primary and complete commitment—individual liberty.  That's what it's all about.  And that's what socialism was supposed to be about, or anarchism was supposed to be about, and tragically has been betrayed.

    And when I normally encounter my so-called colleagues on the left—socialists, Marxists, communists—they tell me that, after the revolution, they're gonna shoot me.  [audience laughs, Murray nods]  That is said with unusual consistencyThey're gonna stand me and Karl up against the wall and get rid of us real fast; I feel much safer in your company.  [audience laughs and applauds]

  • At this point, it would be wise to pause in our narrative and ask ourselves: why was Karl Hess working for the Republican National Committee?  Why was he writing speeches for conservative politicians and drawing paychecks from the biggest and most influential (at that time) of the conservative think tanks?  ...  In effect, then, Hess was deceived by the libertarian rhetoric the GOP and its conservative sympathizers began using in the early 1930s, in a frantic attempt to distinguish themselves from the New Deal Democrats who were pursuing policies long associated with the Republican Party and calling them "liberal."  It is doubtful, of course, that any Republican politician other than Ron Paul has ever taken that libertarian rhetoric seriously.
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