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This was the lead article of Whole Number 13 of The Last Ditch (May 3, 1996), which was devoted to answering the question, "Who was Walter Karp?"


"Any day
is a good day
to fight for liberty"



Walter Karp (b. 1934) was a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine from 1978 until his sudden death in 1989. An observer and analyst of the American political landscape, he expressed a contempt for power, for those who held it, and for those who courted it so scathing that, as Lewis Lapham said in his obituary (Harper's Magazine, October 1989), "he never earned more than $30,000 in any one year, and he received few of the ornamental honors, subsidies, and flattering reviews that the journalistic profession bestows upon the virtues of solemn orthodoxy.... The world didn't trust Walter Karp and rewarded him with nothing in its gift."

He was a latter-day populist — not like Pat Buchanan, the centerpiece of whose "populism" lies in a restriction of foreign trade (in traditional GOP mold), but more like Robert La Follette, whom he held in high esteem. But Karp is a difficult figure for libertarians: he believed that the Supreme Court's decision in 1895 that no federal income tax was valid was "one of the worst decisions in Court history" (POW, p. 42); that Abraham Lincoln was "one of the noblest figures in history" (POW, p. 10); and that so-called entitlement programs do not make recipients dependent on corrupt power (IE+, pp. 194-95). [1] So why is a libertarian publication enthusiastic enough about him to devote an issue to him?


Goodbye to the "seven same things"

It is by no means uncommon to be able to predict a person's political positions on the basis of very little information. Know that Jones opposes the "assault rifle" ban, and you can be pretty sure that he supports the Balanced Budget Amendment and term limits, and opposes the incursion into Haiti. Know that Smith favors the family leave act, and you can be pretty sure that he also favors the "assault rifle" ban, and opposes reducing the capital gains tax and giving block grants to states for school lunches. Know that Brown thinks that Clarence Thomas is a fine jurist, and you can be pretty sure that he thinks Anita Hill was a liar. Yet not one of those ideas logically implies any of the others. People simply buy into package deals or, as I call them, "the seven same things": a person who holds the same belief as another will also agree with that other person on six unrelated issues; they will believe the seven same things.

Walter Karp did not believe the seven same things as anyone. His was a truly original analysis of American history and polity, and you won't find anyone quite like him no matter how much you dig through the library catalogues.

Above all, Karp understood that history is a record of the deeds of men, that men intend the foreseeable consequences of their actions, and that those who hold power are not indifferent to the power they hold. Whether he would have used the term or not, in his understanding of events he was an Aristotelian: men cause events, and you cannot understand events without understanding men and their motives. In particular, you cannot understand history if you lose sight of the universal fact of ambition and the lust for power. An Athenian envoy quoted by Thucydides, a historian Karp held in high regard, said: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule whenever they can." (BA, p. 47)

It is a theme that runs through the work of Karp's last two decades: men do not make Herculean efforts to win offices from which they exercise no power. Men in power cling to it tenaciously and when they can, they enlarge it.

Other men he admired were the champions of the Declaration of Independence (especially Jefferson) and those who were in tune with its insights, especially Madison and Adams. Their recognition of the corrupting power of Power (to which Jefferson explicitly recognized himself to be subject) is fundamental to understanding history, and it is an insight that has by and large been lost among Americans. Americans' faith in the political process may be stated easily: they do not fear Power; if only the "right" man can win public office, that Power will be in the service of Good. How Good can be served when voters acknowledge year after dreary year that they are voting for the lesser of evils remains a mystery.

How Karp applied his analysis to American history from 1890 to 1920 in The Politics of War is the subject of David Wright's essay; Strakon takes on his withering dissection of the two-party system in Indispensable Enemies. I shall examine Liberty Under Siege and the posthumous collection of essays, Buried Alive.


2: The Carter debacle

3: The Carter debacle, continued

4: Another indispensable enemy

5: The two Americas
Any day ...


Posted June 17, 2002

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