The Forgotten Karl: the Life and Philosophy of Karl Hess


When talking about famous “Karls” throughout history, the likes of Karl Marx, Karl Rove, Sir Karl Popper, and Karl Benz may come to mind for a vast majority of people with a general knowledge of politics, science, and business. However, there is one “Karl” that doesn’t seem to get the recognition he deserves despite having great influence on all aspects of the political spectrum and other areas of humanities, unbeknownst to many. His name is Karl Hess.

Born Carl Hess III in Washington, D.C. on May 25, 1923, he and his parents moved to the Philippines as a child only to return to D.C. after his mother and father divorced. While growing up, his mother encouraged him to learn things on his own. This led to Karl believing that public education was a waste of time as he would constantly skip classes and evade truancy officers, foreshadowing his later conflicts with authority figures. His success at playing hooky was by registering at every elementary school in the area and gradually withdrawing from each one, making it near impossible for authorities to know where he was supposed to be. While hiding from truancy officers, he grew an affinity for libraries and educated himself in many fields. This became the basis for his personal philosophy as he believed, “literacy is the tool of the world.”

During his teenage years, Hess continued to expand his horizons by teaching himself to play tennis, fence, and learn how to shoot and craft guns. At age 15, he officially dropped out of school to work for the Mutual Broadcasting System as a news writer and later became an editor of The Washington Daily News by age 18. During WWII, he enlisted in the Army but was discharged when they discovered he contracted malaria in the Philippines. After his brief stint in the military, Hess became an editor for Newsweek and The Fisherman where he also wrote anti-communist periodicals. In the 1950s, he worked for a paper company where he was disheartened by his fellow employees who seemed more interested in personal advancement than actually performing the work that needed to be done. His time working there wasn’t always disappointing, though, as his bosses encouraged him to get involved in conservative politics, intended for company benefit but provided Hess an outlet for his future career. He would meet prominent Republican politicians, including Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, whom he became a speechwriter for.

In the 1960s, Hess became the primary author for Republican platforms in the Presidential Elections of the decade, working closely with Goldwater. During his time with the 1964 Presidential nominee, Hess formed an extraordinary admiration for Goldwater: an influential conservative politician with a number of staunch libertarian convictions. It was during this time he would explore philosophy, particularly politics, more thoroughly. After Goldwater’s loss in the 1964 election, however, Hess became disenchanted with traditional politics as he and others felt ostracized by the Republican Party for their devoted support of the controversial Senator from Arizona. His unceremonious ousting from the party led him to explore more radical strains of political thought.

A year after the election, Hess took up motorcycle riding and repair, which generated an interest in welding that he learned at a vocational school. He would soon use his knowledge in the craft as a trade, doing commercial partnerships with fellow graduates on industrial sites and also turn it into a hobby by creating metal sculptures. It was a skill that would be of much benefit to him in the near future. President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democrat who defeated Goldwater by a landslide in the 1964 election, ordered the Internal Revenue Service to audit him, resulting in Hess being charged with tax resistance. What triggered this action is Hess, after being told by a representative that the law is all that matters, sent the IRS a copy of the Declaration of Independence with a letter attached stating he would no longer be paying taxes. In response, the government confiscated most of his property and put a 100% lien on his future earnings. During the rest of his life, he had to rely on his wife and barter to obtain necessities. Taking pride in being a tax resister, Hess wrote that his act of civil disobedience could’ve had a tremendous effect on the nation had ten million citizens also defied the IRS.

While his conflict with the United States government was going on, Hess gradually aligned with the New Left. He would publicly criticize big business, suburban hypocrisy, and the military-industrial complex and joined the likes of Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panther Party, and Vietnam War Protests. Another major turning point in his political views during this time was cutting ties with Goldwater over differences on conscription. As one friendship ended, another continued to flourish with economist and father of Anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. As a political partnership between the New Left and Old Right grew during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hess and Rothbard edited The Libertarian Forum and conducted conferences together with Robert LeFevre, Samuel Edward Konkin III, and Carl Oglesby in the emerging Libertarian movement. He also began reading the writing of various anarchists, at the recommendation of Rothbard. He became enthralled by the works of Emma Goldman as he believed anarchy was everything he hoped the Republican Party would represent. Hess later enrolled membership with the Industrial Workers of the World in response to both a struggling labor movement in the United States and comparing the killing and imprisonment of African-American militant leaders to those of union figures decades before. By the 1980s, Hess had joined the Libertarian Party and became editor of its newspaper from 1986 to 1990. He would later run for Governor of West Virginia on the ticket in 1992 and when asked what would be his first act if elected, Hess replied, “I would demand an immediate recount.”

Karl Hess died on April 22, 1994, at age 70 in Charlottesville, Virginia due to complications from heart surgery. During his seven decades of life on Earth, he had made significant but largely forgotten influences in Libertarian politics and other areas of philosophy. He is admired by both left and right libertarians alike and was an inspiration in both the Occupy and Tea Party movements.

It’s a shame that not many libertarians and anarchists of all forms (even those in mainstream politics) give blank stares when one brings up the name Karl Hess. It’s a great travesty that his name is not brought up or known about with a vast majority of people in both heterodox and orthodox schools of thought. One can see his influence in many aspects of philosophy and humanities, but rarely does he get the credit he deserves. He is the forgotten “Karl” within the realm of “Karls” throughout history.

You can read more from Mack Fox on Think Liberty here.


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