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Remembering Karl Hess

12/31/2003Gary Galles

[This essay was the basis of a talk that Galles gave at the Karl Hess Club)

2003 was the 80th anniversary of the birth of Karl Hess, a beloved libertarian and public intellectual who was involved in most of the political debates from the 1960s until his death in 1994. His efforts on behalf of liberty were prolific, whether in over a dozen books or the life he lived in harmony with what he believed.

He is best known for penning "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice...moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue" as Barry Goldwater's head speech writer (his ability was reflected in Goldwater's nickname for him: Shakespeare). 

He wrote In a Cause that Will Triumph (1967), Dear America (1975), and Neighborhood Power (1975). But his most influential work was probably his 1969 Playboy article "The Death of Politics." Published prior to the founding of the Libertarian Party, it has been singled out as a central influence in inspiring a revival of the libertarian movement. A short documentary on his life, "Karl Hess: Toward Liberty," even won two Oscars in 1981.

Hess came to his radical views after writing to Murray Rothbard and requesting to meet him. Rothbard invited him to New York. "It was a classical salon, a roomful of a dozen or so extraordinarily bright and witty men and women united by enthusiasm for liberty," wrote Hess. He later wrote for Rothbard's newsletters and co-edited the Libertarian Forum. And while he was involved in the Libertarian Party later, he was never really interested in politics as anything but a venue for airing dissent against the prevailing trends of our time.

Given his influence in reigniting the embers of what had been the flame of liberty at America's founding, it is worth commemorating Karl Hess by considering some of his powerful words.

  • Politics has always been the institutionalized and established way in which some men have exercised the power to live off the output of other men.
  • Politics, throughout time, has been the institutionalized denial of man's ability to survive through the exclusive employment of all his own powers for his own welfare. And politics, throughout time, has existed solely through the resources that it has been able to plunder from the creative and productive people whom it has, in the name of many causes and moralities, denied the exclusive employment of all their own powers for their own welfare.
  • Political parties and politicians today (all parties and all politicians) question only the forms through which they will express their common belief in controlling the lives of others.
  • The reactionary tendencies of both liberals and conservatives today show clearly in their willingness to cede, to the state or the community, power far beyond the protection of liberty against violence. For differing purposes, both see the state as an instrument not protecting man's freedom but either instructing or restricting how that freedom is to be used. Once the power of the community becomes in any sense normative, rather than merely protective, it is difficult to see where any lines may be drawn to limit further transgressions against individual freedom.
  • ...the state...has not given me anything that it did not first extort from me.
  • ...the real answer...must lie in the abandonment, not the extension, of state power—state power that oppresses people, state power that tempts people.
  • Why should anyone have permanent authority over you and your kids merely because they provide certain services?
  • No person is so grand or wise or perfect as to be the master of another person.
  • ...government never has and never can humanely and effectively manage men's affairs...
  • When you put your faith in big government, you end up an apologist for mass murder.
  • The most interesting political questions throughout history have been whether 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.
  • Will men continue to submit to rule by politics, which has always meant the power of some men over other men...?
  • Politics devour men; a laissez-faire world will liberate them.
  • ...many people...are so unsure of freedom that they see its preservation only in its abandonment... We seek...who are neither afraid nor ashamed of what freedom has accomplished, and who will pledge their future to a life in freedom rather than mortgage it to fear, to regimentation, and to a garrison state.
  • The Declaration of Independence is so lucid we're afraid of it today. It scares the hell out of every modern bureaucrat, because it tells them there comes a time when we must stop taking orders.
  • I want the freedom to be responsible for my own actions...
  • ...freedom has been our vision. Some say it is our myth. I say it is our possibility.
  • ...each man is a sovereign land of liberty...
  • Liberty [is]...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.
  • Libertarians yearn for a state that cannot, beyond any possibility or amendment, confer any advantage on anyone; a state that cannot compel anything, but simply prevents the use of violence, in place of other exchanges, in relations between individuals or groups.
  • Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit; that all man's social actions should be voluntary, and that respect for every other man's similar and equal ownership of life, and by extension, the property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society.  In this view, the only—repeat only—function of law or government is to provide the self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.
  • In a laissez-faire society, there could exist no public institution with the power to forcefully protect people from themselves. From other people (criminals), yes. From one's own self, no.
  • ...every community should be one of voluntarism, to the extent that it lives for and through its own people and does not force others to pay its bills. Communities should not be exempted from the civil liberty prescribed for people—the exclusive enjoyment of all their own powers for their own welfare. This means that no one should serve you involuntarily and that you should not involuntarily serve anyone else.
  • The libertarian, laissez-faire movement...builds diversified power to be protected against government, even to dispense with government to a major degree, rather than seeking power to protect government or to perform any special social purpose.
  • The radical and revolutionary view of the future of nationhood is, logically, that it has no future, only a past—often an exciting one, and usually a historically useful one at some stage. But lines drawn on paper, on the ground or in the stratosphere are clearly insufficient to the future of mankind.
  • My community is the community of all who love liberty.

Karl Hess lived as an illustration of his own advice: "We have the illusion of freedom only because so few ever try to exercise it. Try it sometime." He also did what he urged others to do: "keep slogging away...opposing restrictions against liberty." He was one of very few Americans to have really reflected Patrick Henry's immortal words, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" We can be grateful he did so with words of clarity and acuity, rather than the obfuscation so often resorted to when liberty is besieged by those who want power over other men:

Think of whether you have ever met a libertarian who is more a threat to you than is a willing, serving agent of the state. More irritating perhaps. More dangerous? I doubt it. Happily, such libertarians are far more easily ignored than the agents of the state.



Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.