Karl Hess was a noted speechwriter and author, and later in his life was a prominent tax resister, market anarchist, and welder.
In this video from a 1984 Libertarian Party of Maryland meeting, Hess remarks on the importance of community in the commitment to liberty. At the time of this recording, Hess was living in West Virginia with his wife and surviving entirely on bartered goods and services thanks to a 100% lien placed on his future earnings by the Internal Revenue Service a decade earlier. Hess speaks on many topics including his distinction between two types of libertarians (rational and romantic), how to be a good neighbor, and what he saw as useful professions for libertarians to take advantage of.
Hess was an early proponent of the “back to the land” movement, and his focus on self-reliance and small communities happened in part by government mandate. According to a Libertarian Party News obituary, “When the Internal Revenue Service confiscated all his property and put a 100 percent lien on all of his future earnings, Hess (who had taught himself welding) existed on bartering his work for food and goods.”
With Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, Hess and others on the losing team had found themselves outsiders within the national Republican party due to their support of that controversial politician. Anticipating that making a living as a speechwriter thereafter might prove a challenge, Hess had begun to learn welding. This activity put him in rapport with a very large segment of the American population who are manual laborers. He eventually came to the conviction that virtually no one in national politics identified with these people anymore. When Hess revolted against public giantism – a distrust toward large-corporate business as well as big government – his conviction prompted him to withhold federal income tax payment; legal troubles ensued, but he had welding skills (and the practice of barter) to fall back on. After Hess had made friends within the New Left and related circles, he began to encounter the young, new-breed appropriate technology enthusiasts (exemplified, by the early 1970s, in the editors and readerships of the Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News).
In the early 1970s, Hess became involved in an experiment with several friends and colleagues to bring self-built and -managed technology into the direct service of the economic and social life of the poor, largely African American neighborhood of Adams-Morgan in Washington, D.C.. It was the neighborhood in which Hess had spent his childhood. Afterward, Hess wrote a book entitled Community Technology which told the story of this experiment and its results. According to Hess, the residents had a vigorous go at participatory democracy, and the neighborhood seemed for a time like a fertile ground for the growth of community identity and capability.
Much of the technological experimentation Hess and others engaged in there was successful in technical terms (apparatus was built, food raised, solar energy captured, etc.). For instance, Hess wrote: “In one experiment undertaken by the author and associates, an inner-city basement space, roughly thirty by fifty feet, was sufficient to house plywood tanks in which rainbow trout were produced at a cost of less than a dollar per pound. In a regular production run the total number of fish that can be raised in such a basement area was projected to be five tons per year.” He taught courses and lectured on Appropriate Technology and Social Change in this period at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont. Nonetheless, the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, continuing on what he felt was a path of social deterioration and real-estate gentrification, declined to devote itself to expanding on the technology. Hence, in his view, a needy community got little value from the application of viable technology.
Subsequently, Hess and his wife, Therese, moved to rural Opequon Creek between Martinsburg and Kearneysville, West Virginia, where he set up a welding shop to support his household. He became deeply involved with local affairs there. Hess built an affordable house that relied largely on passive-solar heating, and took an interest in wind power and all forms of solar energy. By the late 1970s, he saw solar energy as emblematic of decentralization and nuclear energy as emblematic of central organization.
Hess wrote for a survivalist newsletter titled Personal Survival (“P.S.”) Letter, which was published from 1977 to 1982. It was first published and edited by Mel Tappan. In the same time period, Hess authored the book A Common Sense Strategy for Survivalists.
Hess ran a symbolic campaign for Governor of West Virginia in 1992. When asked by a reporter what his first act would be if elected, he quipped, “I will demand an immediate recount.”