How Caryn Ann Harlos has stayed fiercely positive while standing for “negative rights.”
Just after dinnertime on a relatively laid-back Friday evening, Caryn Ann Harlos logs herself onto Facebook with a brief sentence at the ready that she’s been swiveling around in her mind all afternoon. Raising a clenched fist to her mouth to cough and clear her throat, she steadily cracks the knuckles of every finger and then sets her palms against the bottom edge of her iMac’s slightly finger-smudged keyboard. Harlos’ right hand then moves over onto her mouse, which she leads to the Update Status space in her browser window.
“Taxation,” she promptly types, “is the price you pay for a civilized society.” Out loud, she expresses something else while chuckling: “Oh, shit—I just triggered myself.” For those who know her, it’s more than obvious that a self-declared anarchist like Harlos has posted the status with a deeply cheek-enveloped tongue.
The first comment, which arrives just one minute later, is critical but somewhat delicately so. A friend insists that he is not against all taxes as a matter of course. It’s just the income-related ones.
Harlos’ reply is crisp and to the point: “Theft is theft.”
After more than 120-something comments—some of which have elicited even their own respective threads—she ultimately decides to postpone carrying on with any more conversation until she actually has enough time.
She still leaves one last comment, though, to swipe at any remaining detractors: “All I ask is that you would have the testicular fortitude to rob me personally. Don’t have the State do it for you.” In saying this, she mirrors one of her philosophical influences—Professor Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado in Boulder—who expresses that having to pay taxes under the threat of legal force is no less morally problematic than a charity’s CEO pointing a gun to someone’s head and demanding a donation. Yet somehow, Huemer observes, governments get a moral pass by being under a cover of self-assumed political authority (178).
Harlos could always suggest that someone go and read a plethora of books, much like she herself has. Instead, though, she has a knack for condensing what she believes into short, succinct, and provocative statements. Others might prefer to keep hashing out arguments with countless words that most Facebook users likely won’t even read. It’s undoubtedly the snappier responses of Harlos, though, that are more often heeded by her Facebook friends and followers.
Until about two years ago, Harlos had been active on a discussion forum website called TheologyWeb, where she regularly commented and started post threads of her own related to various issues within the realm of Christian theology. Since much of her time there involved critical reflection and lengthy engagement in debate, she would regularly save every single one of her posts in an enormous Word document that grew to thousands of pages of text over a great deal of months. Eventually, one of her year-long discussions with a fellow user about New Testament eschatology became the basis for a 306-page monograph entitled It’s Not the End of the World!.
Before she had ever even thought of publishing it, she was approached by a representative from Xulon Press who expressed an interest in merely allowing “a friendly discussion,” one where Harlos could use an entire book to explain why she believed the things she did. “I just thought it would be a shame to lose all this work,” she recalls, “So I took the posts and worked it out from there.” Using the nom de plume Dee Dee Warren—which she had taken on during her time on TheologyWeb—Harlos sought to provide a concise commentary on chapter 24 of Matthew’s gospel. Being a passage of the New Testament that speaks of the so-called “end of the age,” it has often been considered to speak of Jesus Christ’s Second Coming. Harlos, however, argues in her book that it has nothing to do with this at all. In her view, Christ’s words were predicting an event that would be fulfilled some 40 years after his historical ministry in the first century, “during the period of the Jewish Wars … when Titus and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple” (Warren vii).
For her, the book marked the end of an age of her own. “I felt I’d done everything that I’d wanted to do and I wanted to start something new.” She desired to finally pursue a more “non-controversial life,” beginning with a move from Florida—where she’d resided for 40 years—out to Castle Rock, Colorado. Her expressed intention at the time was to find a fresh playing ground and truly start to meet new individuals.
In Colorado, her husband would be a reliable voice of encouragement. “You gotta meet people,” he insisted, “and you gotta finds things to do.” He prompted Harlos to make her way into groups centered on her own interests through the website Meetup. Eventually, she would end up finding herself in an outreach position with the Colorado Libertarian Party.
“Of course,” Harlos widens her eyes and smirks, “he had no idea that it would take over my life.”
Balancing time between recreation and activism has long been a challenge. “I used to have free time,” she quips, explaining that “I don’t do anything partly. That’s the problem. It’s either zero or a million percent. I have on and off. That’s it. So, yeah, I miss having a life.”
Years before becoming the Communications Director and Social Media Chair for the Colorado Libertarian Party, Harlos was heavily seeped in her hobbies like sewing and costume re-creation, or at least some other pursuit that she figures could be categorized as “strange and intense and very obsessive.” The cult fantasy series Xena: Warrior Princess has also been a longtime television favorite, so much so that Harlos even had a user handle on TheologyWeb called “Darth Xena.” Since Game of Thrones and Outlander are back on the air, both are at least sitting at the ready on her DVR for whatever downtime she’ll get.
Although there have been those sporadic moments of non-confrontation and relaxation for Harlos, they’ve never been the norm. Her passions haven’t changed much; more often, it’s her venue for expressing them that does.
Even with the work in politics that she is doing presently, Harlos still reminds me that she had for the longest time despised the very thought of politics itself, to the point that she didn’t even vote. She used to chuck every single election ballot she’d receive straight into the trash.
Something snapped, though, when she got into a discussion with some fellow Christian friends over Facebook a couple of years ago. The subject was how governments in China and England were putting spikes underneath overpass bridges to keep the homeless people from sleeping there (Andreou). Scores of commenters on Facebook saw fit to express support for the measures, seeing them as an innovative and necessary way of solving the so-called “homeless problem.”
“I just thought it was completely atrocious,” she explains, still astonished that she was carelessly dismissed by others then as being a “flaming liberal.” At the time, her instinct was to remind everyone that she was in fact a registered Republican but still clarify that she leaned toward being “more of a libertarian.”
The problem, she realized, was that she didn’t have much of an idea of what “libertarian” even meant. Harlos thought it best to at least navigate over to the national Libertarian Party’s website (LP.org) to read their platform.
“I was absolutely astounded and had never read anything like it before,” she says with raised eyebrows. “It was a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment, basically. I read it and was in absolute agreement. The next browser window I opened was for Colorado Secretary of State and I went ahead and changed my registration on the spot.”
Both classically and with more modern organizations like the Libertarian Party, the political philosophy known as libertarianism has hinged on a crucial principle called the “nonaggression axiom,” where aggression is understood to be “the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else” (Rothbard 27). Harlos explains how very few political philosophies exist that would deny that people have rights. Rather, it’s all a matter of how one defines the concept of rights in the first place. Libertarianism, in essence, is focused on the insistence that no one can be forced to owe something to another by virtue of coercion, whether it be services, money, or property.
Since affirming a basic agreement with the national Libertarian Party’s platform and reading prominent anarcho-capitalist theorists like Murray Rothbard, Edward Stringham, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and Robert Murphy on her own, Harlos has found herself occupying the more radically libertarian end of the spectrum. “Libertarianism,” she tells me, “Absolutely denies any positive rights. And I think that’s fundamental. That’s what the nonaggression principle basically says. Once you determine what is rightfully yours, the only duty other people owe to you is one of non-interference.”
For Harlos, even claiming something as taken-for-granted as the right to an attorney, found in the U.S. Constitution, is morally problematic. “That might be what the Constitution says, but no one actually has that right naturally; you have no right to force me or anyone to provide an attorney for you.” This is a concept that fits under what Harlos and other libertarians would term “negative rights”—rights to be free from interference of any kind when someone is carrying out peaceful and voluntary actions.
Being a Christian, Harlos still has no hesitation in affirming that she should voluntarily take on various sorts of obligations toward others; what differentiates this from government policies or regulations, however, is that such spiritually motivated obligations are not enforceable.
“No one should morally use the power of the State,” she explains. “You know the whole story of the Good Samaritan. Should somebody have been forced to help that person lying beside the road? Strict libertarianism would say, ‘No, that person has no right to force anyone to help them.’ Now, that sounds kind of cold and terrible. And I would think they’re a terrible person if they don’t do that. But you still can’t hold a gun to someone’s head and tell them to help somebody else.”
Because politics can obviously be a contentious issue to begin with—no matter what the discussion is about—there’s some question as to what motivates someone like Harlos to bring it up on social media as often as she does. One reason might be the reach of her friend and follower network, which currently totals more than 1,200 on Facebook and extends beyond that on other sites because of her prior involvement on TheologyWeb. Another explanation is offered in a 2015 study published in the Political Research Quarterly, where scholars from the University of Utah discuss how risking ridicule on a social media space like Facebook can go hand-in-hand with one’s identity as a person of “high betweenness.” This is a term which refers to the amount of social influence that people have or perceive themselves to have (Miller et al. 379).
One vital aspect of online communication tendencies that Miller et al. raise is that of such individuals’ roles as content gatekeepers who desire to “engage in opinion leadership and political influence” (388). The fact that Harlos is successful in this role is evident in her numerous daily interactions on Facebook.
In continuing to talk about her motivations, Harlos is candid about what she often ends up telling people in the status update threads that grow the largest. “I say on Facebook a lot, when people argue with me or argue that we need to comprise here and there, I tell them: ‘Here’s the problem. I have the curse that I actually believe this shit. And because I do, why would I say—if I really believe that people’s rights are being violated—that it’s okay? Oh, they’re being violated 80-percent now, but at 50-percent it’ll be okay. So if we still had slavery, it’d be okay? Well, you know, we only make them work 12 hours of the day. They have 12 hours of free time, so it’s all good. Right? Well, I can’t do that.”
Harlos has had quite a lot of time to discover that all political parties, even the Libertarian Party, are still political parties with the same malfeasances and nastiness that one might expect. But she maintains that a difference can still be made in this sort of environment. Even in her work with debating others on theology—some of them as advanced as doctoral-level scholars—she has found that it is entirely possible for a “nobody” to make a difference in any subject that they invest their intellect into.
Thinking back on how her lack of specialized education or training has caused some to question her authority to speak on issues, Harlos reiterates that absolutely anyone can hold their own in discussions about even complex subjects—so long as they put their mind to it and have a passion for it. She views this as being especially true for things that are philosophical or knowledge-based in nature, what she calls the “life of the mind.”
“Anyone who has the dedication and the minimal intellect to sit and read and research and have critical thinking skills,” she stresses, “can become just as good as anyone who had gotten more specialized training.”
Harlos’ conception of more nontraditional possibilities for intellectualism is certainly not without precedent. New Republic contributor Noah Berlatsky, for example, acknowledges that a new type of “intellectual public” (25) has emerged outside of university-degreed elites. These are people, much like Harlos, who from all external appearances are merely “writers, activists, Twitter users, and commenters” in the general public like many of us (25). Still, like even the most seasoned and educated public figures throughout history, they engage in the same labor of initiating rational thought and offering meaningful responses to that of others. What Berlatsky additionally suggests is that intellectual arguments, observations, and solutions can be advanced in a multitude of contexts, regardless of the officiality or credentials of the people advancing them.
Harlos still acknowledges the place of university learning, saying that “some people do learn that way and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. They need courses, they need professors, they need syllabi, and they need the structure. I don’t. I never have. They’re just different ways of learning.”
Ultimately, she hopes that fellow libertarians and the general public would continue to embrace the idea of different modes of learning and allow traditionally non-respected voices to contribute to important conversations. “Let my work speak for itself,” she insists. “If someone wants to challenge my ideas, challenge them on the ideas themselves and not on my particular lack of training.”
In May, Harlos plans to run for a committee position at the Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention in Orlando, Florida. She readily makes a point of insisting that her chances of success are at “under five percent.” The essence of why she’s chosen to run is so that she can have “bitching rights,” as she calls them, to complain about the ideological concerns she has over the Libertarian Party’s official platform. “The national chair, Nick, had said to me, ‘You know, you radicals, all you ever do is complain but you never want to step up and get involved. I have to tell you, if you’re on the LNC, 95 percent of the work is just grunt, sweat, management work and just five percent is ideological. If you want your set in the five percent that’s ideological, then your butt had better be willing to do 95 percent of the work.’” After giving it some thought—remembering that she’s intent on actually “doing political shit” rather than just “belly-button gazing”—she accepted the challenge.
As a child and a teenager, Harlos was raised in what she recalls as being a rather “libertarian environment” in its own right. Her parents, she recollects, never put any obstacles in her way regarding what she chose to pursue or accomplish or think. It was the think part of it that was more important than anything else, an aspect of her life which continually encouraged her to develop her own passionate opinions and realizations about various matters. But it’s still what she does with her enthusiasm for ideas that makes all the difference. “I don’t make goals that are unattainable and I don’t just make goals for the sake of them,” she clarifies. “There’s gotta be something meaningful or necessary to it. You’ve gotta own your own stuff. I think that being transparent and honest and forthright is probably the greatest gift you could give to other people.”
Andreou, Alex. “Spikes Keep the Homeless Away, Pushing Them Further Out of Sight.” The Guardian. 9 June 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
Berlatsky, Noah. “Death to the ‘Public Intellectual.’” 2015. Rpt. in English 4880/5880. Comp. Ann N. Amicucci. Colorado Springs, CO: UCCS, 2016. 23-25. Print.
Huemer, Michael. The Problem of Political Authority. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.
Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly 68.2 (2015): 377-391. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
Rothbard, Murray N. For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. 2nd ed. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011. Print.
Warren, Dee Dee [Caryn Ann Harlos]. It’s Not The End Of The World!: A Commentary On Matthew 24 and a Response to Pop Christian Eschatology. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015. Print.