Libertarian History/Philosophy

In Memoriam: Karl Hess


Karl Hess, dubbed an "unconventional intellectual" by The Washington Post, died on April 22 at age 70, two years after receiving a heart transplant.

Unconventional Hess was, but never inconsistent. Over the more than 30 years of his quasi-public life as a writer and political activist, a single theme—pursuit of liberty—dominated both his writings and his deeds.

"Everyone who speaks well of liberty and, more importantly, acts to enjoy it or extend it," Hess wrote as the editor of the Libertarian Party newsletter, "is welcome in my view….My community is the community of all who love liberty."

Hess's pursuit of liberty as he understood it sometimes made for strange bedfellows. At one time, he served as 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's speechwriter. Later, he plunged into grass-roots community organizing, interacting with such groups as the Black Panther Party.

For Hess, liberty was a lifestyle, not simply a philosophical concept. In the 1970s, he strived to build an economically independent community. He brought to that effort ideas reminiscent of British writer E. F. Schumacher's "small is beautiful," experimenting with small-scale, "backyard" technologies, including solar ovens and windmills.

In many ways, this experiment embodied Hess's concept of liberty. Like other libertarian philosophers, he championed individualism. But Hess saw decentralized institutions as pivotal to nurturing freedom. And he seemed especially drawn to struggles for justice by "the little guy."

Though he wrote for numerous publications, including REASON, Hess penned his most famous lines as Goldwater's speechwriter. At the 1964 Republican convention, Goldwater proclaimed, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Written 30 years ago, these words offer a concise summation of Hess's lifelong fervor for liberty.