James Moore is the last person you would expect to find in the whirlwind of a scandal. With deep set myopic eyes peering out on the world from behind a sturdy set of glasses, a dress shirt neatly tucked into pants pulled all-too-high above his waist and a pallor particularly striking in Southern California, the public policy professor at USC exudes the type of old-timey stability associated with musty academia and drab 1970s office work.
But there he was, suddenly the man whose job some students were eagerly clamoring for as he flung himself firmly into the political spotlight. It was October 2018 when Moore sent a mass email to all students at the Price School of Public Policy defending due process in sexual assault allegations – just hours after Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the U.S Senate that now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while in high school.
“It is more important to avoid punishing innocent [people] than it is to ensure that none of the guilty escape,” Moore reflected in an April 2019 article for Inside Higher Ed after the reaction to the email he had written died down.
In that one sentence Moore captured his motivation for penning that now-infamous email, as well as his entire worldview; liberty must be protected at all costs. The threatened liberty in this case was the presumption of innocence – and the erosion of it that Moore perceived when he heard student activists calling for everyone to “believe survivors”.
“Accusers sometimes lie,” Moore wrote in the email. The stage was set for uproar.
To understand why the public policy professor ended up in that mess, we must begin the story in the Midwest – and more specifically, in Wapakoneta, Ohio, where Moore was born in 1959.
“In the middle of nowhere,” Moore said in an interview, chuckling between sips of coffee at his desk.
It was a world of endless farmland and bleak horizons. By the time he finished college, Moore had enough of the Midwest. With a grad school acceptance into Stanford, he packed his bags and bought a one-way ticket to California.
“I was angry,” he joked, “there was a paradise in the West, and I had missed the memo.”
And so Moore set out for the West, following in the footsteps of those American pioneers that had ventured forward toward the promise of freedom and opportunity in the Golden Land. Those were a people who had hewn their own paths in the wilderness and slept with rifles by their bedside – a people who had made their destiny for themselves. To understand Moore outside of that context is to not understand him at all. His entire philosophy is a portrait in the sacred nature of the limitless liberty promised in the West, and in America writ large.
It will come as no surprise that he is, after all, a self-avowed libertarian.
“Being a libertarian is looking for ways to do things with more freedom rather than less,” he said.
It was only when he came to California that Moore’s vague inklings and senses about the world began to coalesce into concrete political views. His education in public policy and systems engineering cemented his belief that government usually does things less effectively than the market.
“It was at Stanford that I began to understand the good that markets deliver to a society.”
Like many who live in the fringes of the political spectrum, Moore is partial to the occasional grand, dramatic pronouncement. Phrases such as “I regard public education as a method of indoctrination,” and “All governance is an exercise in force,” or “Any rapid redistribution of wealth will result in civil war – the one reason I don’t think it will happen is we’ve got so damn many guns,” shoulder their way into his rhetoric.
Seeing Moore reason through his political beliefs in his dark, cluttered office is somehow a refreshing experience. Despite the odd, all-encompassing declaration, he actually lacks the fierce dogmatism of many who eschew the compromises of the center – when he has not done enough research, or he simply does not know the answer to a question, he’s the first to admit it. When pressed on why there is not rampant abuse in the United Kingdom, where gun laws are much stricter, he paused to consider the question carefully.
“How do countries with stricter gun laws remain free?” he mused to himself, reframing the question around the central issue of liberty. After a prolonged silence, Moore shook his head and smiled wryly. “I’m not necessarily going to be able to answer every single one of your questions.”
It is this sort of intellectual honesty and consistency that is most admirable about Moore. He seems a being totally powered by reason – if a claim does not stand up to his scrupulous logical examination, he discards it. It has led him to adopt controversial positions that he never shies away from discussing.
“I would support a woman’s reproductive rights.”
Moore's stance on women’s reproductive rights might have surprised some of the protesters calling for his termination. In today’s polarized political world, it can be difficult to occupy the middle ground on social issues without being cast as conservative or liberal. Moore considers himself neither.
His defense of due process in sexual assault allegations during the politically charged Kavanaugh hearings threatened to define his reputation. One protester called Moore a “rape enabler” based on his mass email.
“My intent was to create a moment for empathy and reflection,” Moore wrote later in the Inside Higher Ed article.
Price Dean Jack Knott at the time condemned Moore’s email as “incendiary and insensitive” in an email of his own. Moore, who has held tenure at USC since 1993, did not face any disciplinary action from the school.
Doing things his own way has been a staple of Moore’s life. In 1976, the first general election he could participate in, Moore voted for Ronald Reagan, who had lost the Republican primary and was not even on the ballot. Since then, Moore has mostly voted libertarian.
“I was being a contrarian,” Moore said. “I usually vote libertarian. They’re protest votes.”
2020, however, will be different for Moore.
“I’m going to swallow hard, hold my nose, and vote for Trump.”
Moore said he’s learned to pay attention to what President Trump does and not what he says, and describes the president as the “lesser of two evils.”
More importantly, he said in the interview, conducted when the political landscape was quite different, his fear of Democrats this time around is just too powerful for him to ignore.
“You have a guy on the Democratic side looking at the camera with a straight face and saying he’s a socialist. I don’t want to wake up and live in Venezuela,” he said while making a second cup of coffee.
Isn’t drawing an equivalency between Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism and Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime a bit of a stretch – and the Scandinavian countries seem to be doing great under democratic socialism? He readily conceded the point.
“You’re right, it’s not the same thing,” Moore said, and suddenly a grin covered his face as he considered the Nordic countries. “If they were truly happy, they would live in California – I mean they live north of the Arctic circle, how could they be happy?” he laughed heartily.
Only a second later, however, he’s already poking and prodding at the question in his mind, mulling it over in his relentlessly logical brain.
“I don’t aspire to be Denmark. I’ve traveled to [to the Scandinavian countries] and they’re not bad places at all. They’re just not places I’m aiming to emulate.”
In a recent followup discussion via email, Moore said he’s also no fan of former Vice President Joe Biden, on the path to become the Democratic nominee.
“I don’t like Biden’s record on gender law,” Moore said. “Violence against anyone is bad, but the Violence Against Women Act is deeply flawed, and Biden was carrying that water.”
This, above all, is what impresses one the most from talking to Moore; his brand of intellectual honesty. He knows he’s looking at the world from his own particular set of liberty-tinted glasses, and he readily recognizes that it’s not the only way of doing things. But it’s his way, and he would not change it for the world.