Dr. Donald Devine is a TFAS senior scholar and served as director of the Office of Personnel Management in the Reagan administration. Don has had a distinguished career in academics having written ten books, and taught at both University of Maryland and Bellevue University, where he was known as a proponent of fusionist philosophy.
This weeks episode of the Liberty and Leadership Podcast was recorded live at TFAS in front of an audience, where Roger and Don discussed the development of fusionism, the tension between freedom and tradition, reforming the Federal Reserve, Woodrow Wilson’s lasting impact, and how Don earned the title of Reagan’s “terrible swift sword” as President Reagan’s OPM Director.
The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and produced by kglobal. If you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni who are making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law, and the media. Today, I’m joined by TFAS senior scholar, Don Devine, for the first ever live recording of the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Don served as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a role which famously earned him the title of Reagan’s terrible Swift Sword due to his reform of the civil service and his success in accomplishing Reagan’s agenda. Don has also had a distinguished career in academics, writing eight books, teaching at the University of Maryland and Bellevue University, and being known as a proponent of fusionist philosophy. Don is many things. He was a dedicated civil servant. He is a leading scholar and an expert political scientist. You’ll be hearing our discussion from a recent TFAS luncheon. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Roger Ream [00:01:13] I’ve started hosting a podcast called Liberty and Leadership about five months ago, and so far I’ve only interviewed alums of The Fund for American Studies programs. They’ve included an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal, the minority leader of the Illinois State Senate, a justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. And the latest one I just recorded that’ll be released in about a week is an alum of ours who works for PGA Golf and the Golf Channel. So it’s a variety of very interesting guests we’ve had on. But we thought today, since we were assembling this group for the first time and I hadn’t hosted one with a non alum, that Don Devine would be the one to kick this off with. So I thought I’d ask Don some questions today and then we’ll have a discussion. We may run with just my short interview with Don in the podcast. We may include some of the conversation if nobody objects, but I think it’ll be fun and I think will be very informative.
Donald Devine [00:02:20] I will say, by the way, the general rule is this was all off the record, but today, obviously, we can say that.
Roger Ream [00:02:31] Well, Don, you’ve had a long and distinguished career that has spanned many fields, including academia.
Donald Devine [00:02:36] I’m old otherwise.
Roger Ream [00:02:40] No. Well, it’s included academia, service and government, involvement in many political campaigns, including on or around several presidential campaigns. While doing this, you’ve always kept your attention focused on ideas and on the ideas that underpin the American Constitution and individual liberty. The result has been you’ve written several what I think are brilliant books over the years that defend the values of Western.
Donald Devine [00:03:07] This is a great one. We’ll get you a copy of this eventually.
Roger Ream [00:03:10] His latest is The Enduring Tension Capitalism and the Moral Order, which I think we’ll talk a little bit about today. But these books have looked into political philosophy and they’ve led, Don, you to have the label as the leading fusionist, at least the leading one living today. And as you have said you’ve hosted for almost nine years a evening dinner with people who would describe themselves probably most likely as conservative or libertarian, but who understand and wouldn’t be too quick to reject the label fusionism. But can you begin by just telling us precisely what is fusionism?
Donald Devine [00:03:57] Well, it’s taken me ten bucks to try to figure it out. I can’t really say too much about what it is, but very simply, it’s a synthesis. Derived from Western civilization between freedom and tradition. I mean, that’s the end of it. Not a Hegelian synthesis, but an open-ended synthesis. Hayek in synthesis rather than a Hegelian one.
Roger Ream [00:04:34] Well, yeah, it does help, I think. I know you like to call it a synthesis and it’s often mistaken as some sort of political coalition that’s pulled together of people with different hierarchy of values when it comes to foreign policy or religious issues or economics. So I think calling it a synthesis is somewhat helpful. But why don’t we look at the history of the idea. When was it developed, and who are the key figures who developed the idea of fusionism?
Donald Devine [00:05:09] As I mentioned, Hayek is the one that started it all, in my opinion. What it is, is some serious thinkers, World War II saying how do we get to two of these world wars to try to destroy Western civilization? It’s seen all of the hyper rationalists philosophies fail. Hegel himself much less communism, fascism, Nazism or welfare liberalism. Welfare, state liberalism. They’ve seen all this fail. They’d all come to various degrees of power, and none of them seem to be working. Even the welfare state in the United States basically fell apart in 1938. The Republicans gained over 100 seats in the House and I forget how many in the Senate. But anyway, they became a live force and basically blocked the welfare state from 1938 to 1965. But the state back in that period, everybody seemed to be thinking something was wrong and this guy, Friedrich Hayek, steps up and writes this book.
Roger Ream [00:06:54] Was it The Road to Serfdom?
Donald Devine [00:06:56] Right. And he influences an incredible number of people. And so Fluke, a guy who’s the head of the largest circulation magazine in America, reads this thing. He says, This is great. This is the kind of an academic book, right? He puts it in the most broad services, Reader’s Digest, it was called, and it goes around the country and kind of everybody who reads, reads it. And especially in terms of he didn’t use the term fusion, of course, but he picks a guy named William F. Buckley is just enamored by it. Frank Meier, Ronald Reagan, all of them said what inspired them was Road to Serfdom, to start rethinking about whether the welfare state is just a nicer version of some of the other things that were going along. So Hayek stands out to me among all the rest. Should I talk a little more about him?
Roger Ream [00:08:40] Let me ask about that, because Hayek is beloved by libertarians. He won a Nobel Prize in economics, a leading figure in the Austrian School of Economics. And, of course, the last chapter and another book he wrote.
Donald Devine [00:08:58] Was the one that convinced me.
Roger Ream [00:09:02] The Constitution of Liberty. His last chapter he titled Why I am Not a Conservative. Libertarians certainly love the title. And could you talk a little bit about that chapter and, you know, Hayek seemingly rejection of conservatism?
Donald Devine [00:09:24] Well, I always used to get Ed Crane was a longtime leader.
Roger Ream [00:09:30] The president of CATO, the former president of CATO.
Donald Devine [00:09:35] And he named his main meeting room after Hayek. I always used to kid him, I really appreciate you naming it after a fusionist. It always used to drive him nuts. You read the chapter. The chapter is remember he wrote his early works from England. All right. He’s talking about English Tories. That’s what he’s talking about. Nothing to do with fusionists conservatism. Hayek is most important. Not as an economist, not as even a simple philosopher. He’s an Epistemologist and what he does for a large, large group of people is re-looks at the Epistemology as how thinking is done. As early as 1945, he distinguishes between monastic rationalism. The principals derive everything from it. Hegel, Marks but many in the middle, many on the right. It’s a way of thinking that synthesis in the non-Hegelian sense is a legitimate way of thinking and that principles are not fully derived from any single thing. And that’s this tension that I used to admire from him, from Meyer. It’s this tension between freedom and tradition, the moral order of Western civilization, which he goes into. And again, all of this was spelled out not so much in his first work, but in the Constitution of Liberty, which is really the philosophical foundation of fusionism. And constitutional liberty is on page 61 and by crazy in the original edition and by crazy and in the end, the modern liberty fund thing. It’s on 120 or 121. He says something. It just made me drop, he says paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true. He always makes a little context there. Probably true that as a successful free society will always, in large measure, be a tradition bound society that this some hookup between. And that’s why I can call him a fusionist, although he never used the term. And his great were kinds of rationalism, which I think even CATO has the wrong version of. But he makes that distinction between what he calls constructive rationalism, which starts unambiguously from a single minus, then essences and deduces all conclusions from and a critical rationalism that employs multiple reasoning methods. I mean in a fatal conceit in 1991, he even gives religion a kind of back end. And then he says, You tell rationalist utilitarianism is obviously insufficient. But even those not prepared to accept an anthropological conception of a personal divinity ought to admit that the premature loss of what we regard as non factual beliefs would have deprived mankind of a powerful support in the long development of the extended daughter we now enjoy, and that even now the loss of these beliefs, whether true or false, creates difficulties. Is a man that sees multiple sources of reason. And it’s probably not anywhere near the dominant movement today, but at least to me, the more impressive thinkers can get out of this box of first principle, derive everything from it, which is the basis of the kind of all of the modern ideologies.
Roger Ream [00:15:03] Well, let’s shift a minute to Frank Meyers role in all this. His book, In Defense of Freedom, is in some sense, I suppose the original source of fusionist philosophy or popularization of fusionism. Even though I think Meyer rejected that word, it was used to disparage his ideas by Brant Bozell, as I recall. Why do you think he rejected that word? And you know, what was Frank Meyer’s role in all this?
Donald Devine [00:15:35] Because he was a hierarchy there and he’s not a single source person. And of course, fusionism implies Hayekism, really, that they’re coming together and they stay together and emerge as perfect at the end. But he’s looking at tradition as a vital source between tradition and freedom. Because freedom the criterion principle. And it should dominate decision making. But in order to fill it out, you need to rely back on tradition too. And while freedom is always the first principle, it has to take into account in order to live in a complex world. And of course, Hayek complexity is enormously important that you need to think in this tension terms. Actually, I would argue the defense of freedom is not his best piece. The Liberty Fund compilation, which I had a little to do with, but I didn’t make this critical decision. The guy who put together the defense of freedom is called In Defense of Freedom and Other Essays. And the last essay in the book is this one on Western Civilization, which is really Meyer’s best theoretical piece that explains it.
Roger Ream [00:17:35] Yeah. That Liberty Fund edition was edited by Bill Dennis.
Donald Devine [00:17:40] Yeah, he actually lists the, I think, 12 or 15 people who are important in starting this fusionist thing. I’m the only one still alive.
Roger Ream [00:17:58] Well, let’s go further back for a minute. And it seems like there’s a renewed interest today. And the philosopher John Locke, he’s been disparaged by some on the right. You’ve come to his defense in some of your writing, Don. But why is someone who lived more than 300 years ago become a controversial figure among conservatives today?
Donald Devine [00:18:28] Well, it’s among everybody. I mean, John Locke is clearly the source. Everybody goes to supporting freedom to some extent or another. So if you want to take off after freedom, Locke’s your guy to go after, I mean, is clear is the dominant influence in the Declaration of Independence and writing that and all the importance of freedom. Even Leo Strauss who I wrote 45 years ago against this interpretation of luck. I mean, he does not say he’s talking about Locke. He says he’s talking about Locke’s partial law of nature, and which he throws out his whole tradition side and only keeps the freedom side and naturally calls him a utilitarian philosopher. The reason everybody is supporting them or going against them right now, the conservative part of this, they kind of kept this libertarian traditionalist balance between the two politically through Reagan and downhill ever since. But it’s kind of broken now. So now you’re getting Locke going against freedom from both sides of the equation. So to me, it’s very important to keep and as I say, I’ve been doing this for a half century. That he’s part of the freedom equation. And he also accepts the importance of tradition and how I mean, he wrote one book in defense of Christianity. I mean, I don’t know how you can think that’s a total. But anyway.
Roger Ream [00:21:00] Well, let me ask a few more questions and then we’ll see if others have questions to ask you. The word religion has been mentioned once or twice. When you say there’s this tension, fusionists believe in this tension or synthesis of freedom and tradition. By tradition can you easily substitute the word religion? Hayek certainly wasn’t religious.
Donald Devine [00:21:24] It’s much more than religion. But religion’s part. I mean, it’s the history, the mores that have been developed over a long period of time. I mean, it was terribly against tradition in 1960 when Hayek unconstitutional liberty starts liberty with the Middle Ages, the Magna Carta. I mean, that wasn’t allowed for at least 50 years.
Roger Ream [00:22:09] Well, what role do you think Fusionism can play today? Can it? I mean, I think people who call themselves say small l libertarians, people call themselves conservative in the broad sense of that word, of course there’s the establishment conservatives, I guess traditional conservatives, new right conservatives, MAGA republicans, etc.. But can Confucianism somehow play a role in bringing together these very divided groups today and lead to a movement of freedom, pro freedom, I guess in pro tradition movement that can do something to fight back against progressive takeover of government.
Donald Devine [00:22:54] Well, in 1960, when all this started getting organized, the first conservative and the first libertarian, really. Institutions are boiling up. I mean, any thought that this idea could go anywhere, it was just ridiculous. I mean, we weren’t even covered in the newspapers. We didn’t exist. In fact, that was a great thing. We were able to do incredible thing and get away with murder. Really. Nobody was writing about it. I mean, remember what happened in 1964? We put up one of these candidates. Right.
Roger Ream [00:23:50] And got wiped out.
Donald Devine [00:23:51] He got not only got wiped, I mean, he revived welfare statism. Right. The Democrats picked up two thirds in both houses of Congress. Right. And that’s got to go back on board to the Great Society. I mean, how could that idea have a possible chance anywhere? Who all of a sudden have 1976. A guy is running like this. All right. Straight out, right? Ronald Reagan, he kind of took some of the edges off, but he running. We had nobody but I was one of his leading political people. We would go out to try to have a better place. We could not get one elected Republican to come out. Remember, running against an incumbent Republican president. We couldn’t get one political official to come out. We had to take retired people or somebody. I mean, nobody would stick up for him. And yet we came this close to the beating him, of course.
Roger Ream [00:25:05] And that was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan was former governor challenging President Gerald Ford.
Donald Devine [00:25:12] Right.
Roger Ream [00:25:13] And then four years later.
Donald Devine [00:25:14] Four years later, he’s elected. And we don’t do everything that we get a lot done. And in the tradition. And that’s the way I view it again. I’ve seen it go all the way down, all the way back and the importance of fusionism. And it doesn’t take everybody to do this. If there are a few people that can take into account kind of what I consider both sides, but it includes all sides, as far as I’m concerned, that there’s very few things that have no truth to them as far as I’m concerned. And if you have fusionists, who are listening to both sides, the way we define it as libertarianism isn’t traditional. Lord Acton said, you know, the true friends of freedom are very few when you look at the history of the world. And what we need is believers and freedom that can reach out to everybody else. I mean, so that’s what makes it important to me. And it gives us all hope. And I agree it looks pretty hopeless. And maybe I’m lucky to get out when I am. But again, you know, it looked hopeless in 1944 with this professor in England and out of his own country writing a book in the language, it’s not his. It looked the same way in 1964 when Goldwater got slaughtered.
Roger Ream [00:27:16] Yeah, I remember sometime in the I think I was in college at the time, but Emmet Tyrrell, founder of the American Spectator, I think, put together a book that he edited before Thatcher, and it was called Will There Always Be in England? Because England was in such, it was going downhill so fast with strikes and unemployment and inflation and all the things we were experiencing, to a lesser extent in the U.S. And you could actually ask that question, is England going to survive? And then it all got turned around by Lady Thatcher or much of the way around. Well, you wrote a book before it. The enduring tension called The Way Back. Is there a way back since you’ve just touched on this, or is our country too far down and not just to the path of socialism, but toward kind of financial bankruptcy and unfunded liabilities that could easily drowned our financial system? Or can we return to being kind of a bastion of freedom in the world?
Donald Devine [00:28:18] Well, I kind of answered it before. I’ve seen it all up and down. But how far we’ve come. Lately I’ve been getting on the Federal Reserve System. I’ve come to the conclusion if you can’t reform the Federal Reserve and we got everything else done that we would like, it wouldn’t make any difference, especially on the economic side. Just read a good book which I can’t even think of the guy’s name right now. But my point is to change things we got to do the fundamentals. We can’t fool around with the little stuff. I don’t mean that you don’t have the right to survive. But I do, as anyone does. But to recognize that. The fundamentals are wrong. We’ve been off TRAUM for 100. Woodrow Wilson is the problem and we need to face directly this philosophy that’s been running the country for the last hundred years under his inspiration. Turned the whole country around. Went to Europe and he found out that big government works and writes a book I had to read in college about what’s wrong with separation of powers, which to me is the essential element of freedom.
Roger Ream [00:30:14] Why do you say a separation of powers is the most essential element of freedom?
Donald Devine [00:30:21] Because everything else has to be done by somebody and you can’t trust anybody to do it. You need power to balance power, purely rationalist definitions of freedom just don’t work. They’re just what I want to do. All right. What separation of powers does and why Magna Carta is so important to me. Constitutional liberty. I mean, it’s when you separate these people from each other that freedom has a chance. So one of our meetings, night meetings, I think we were defending freedom kind of early on. I said freedom is separation of power. Everybody laughed I think they’ve changed, some of them changed. But that’s what we need and we don’t have an institutions like the Federal Reserve or running off in then saying places as much as nobody will say we need gold. Even people who believe in gold don’t believe in it. We need something to restrict that thing. You can’t fix anything else if the Fed can just print money forever. In my opinion, we’re still in a 2008 great recession. So they said, look, you just mentioned the way back in 13 that it was still going on and we’re going to face, I think we’re going to get hit real hard. But I think I always see both sides. I think it could be so bad that in 2024 we could actually fix the Federal Reserve if things are bad enough. Things that we didn’t think possible could be possible. They got their whole system starting again in 1965 when they got two thirds in both houses of Congress. That might be possible if it gets bad enough by 2024. And a Republican president. Who knows what would be possible? Well that’s kind of optimist.
Roger Ream [00:33:10] I was at the dinner where you emphasized the importance of the separation of powers. I don’t think I laughed at you, but I did push back because I’m not sure I understood exactly what you were saying. But I came around to understand that it was correct. The key being the separation of powers and not just in the sense of how our Constitution does it, but the concept more generally is. Let me shift in slightly and ask one more question, and that is, you know, you were director of the Office of Personnel Management in President Reagan’s first term. That means you had oversight over the civil service and the federal bureaucracy. I know you value very highly, Mrs. Ludwig Von Mises book Bureaucracy. And you wrote your own book, a very important book on the subject of bureaucracy that was only reprinted a few years ago because it was so valuable that it had gone out of print and someone saw fit to put it back into print. Talk just a little about that experience. It obviously gives lie to the progressive argument, the Woodrow Wilson argument that you can have rule by experts, because ultimately bureaucracy just doesn’t function. Could you talk about that? Because I’ve learned a lot from you on that subject.
Donald Devine [00:34:31] Well, you know, I stole it all from Von Mises. A little book called Bureaucracy published, believe it or not, by Yale University Press. All right. Anybody can read it in a couple of hours. All right. But nobody had. So I read it. And it’s so simple. Big bureaucracies need ways to communicate from the top to the bottom. Right. That’s the premise. Private sector has this wonderful thing. You can have 100, although the private sector tends to have less division. You can have a hundred levels of it in theory. And at each level you can go down and ask them one question. And you can find out what’s going on in the biggest bureaucracy. What is it? Is it making a profit or not? Right. And if it is, you do more of it. And if it isn’t, you do less of it or get rid of it or whatever. What’s the alternative in the government? It doesn’t have that little mechanism to find out what’s going down below. In fact, if you did get down there and find out if it was making a profit or a loss. If it’s losing, you increase what you spend on it. All right. So if it’s working, you probably change it anyway. All right. You don’t know what it is. I use the Rock of Gibraltar as a thing. And when I do a lecture on this, and the president is sitting up at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar and every level, every couple of feet going down there, there’s a different level until you get to the bottom of the water of the Mediterranean, this is at the head of the Mediterranean big rock. That’s where the people are. All right. And the president has no idea up there what’s going on down there or very little. And everything he reads is biased in some degree anyway. All right. He doesn’t know how. And in fact, he can’t even really order the second level people. The ones who have even as dumb as Congress has they still have all the power in the hands of the cabinet officers, not the president. Of course, all you people are sophisticated, you know an executive order is not a law, is not anything. It says please, Mr. Secretary, will you do this? That’s what it is. There’s no legal thing beyond that. Occasionally a court will reach if they have nothing else to make up the law as though they’ll pretend it’s the law. But the legal fact is that they have it. The president is asking you to do it. But even he and of course, the secretaries, I have no more idea what going down. Three levels below them, much less 20. The guy at the Brookings Institution says there is 70 different levels that you have to go down to see what’s going on before you hit real people. I think that’s exaggerated in my experience. But let’s say it’s 50. All right. And at each level, they can do anything they want. And in fact, what can they do? A political appointee who actually wants to do something. You go to The Washington Post. All right. And turn them in. All right. If you’re lucky, you won’t go to jail. This is a system that can’t work. Intellectually as Mises proved and my experience eight years it doesn’t work. And I went back in for six months just recently the final people who finally understood what personal was about got in the Trump administration about six months to go and somebody gave him that book. So they had me go in the government. It’s so much worse now than it was then. It’s unbelievable the war is because, you know, Jimmy Carter, Democrat, he saved the system. He hired my professor, big liberal Democrat, to be the head of the first the head of OPM. What OPM is they give executive branch some control over what’s going on in the agencies. And he was a genius. He taught me I don’t think he referred me to Mises book, but his thinking got me to go there.
Roger Ream [00:40:13] And he had some kind of a reform of the civil service.
Donald Devine [00:40:17] He passed the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978. If anybody is around, just repass his all right. It’s not great, but it’s much, much better. And while was in the last six months looking at this again, the bureaucracy has overturned almost everything in that law. It’s still the law. But they found different ways to do this. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. If it was really impossible to run the civil service when I was there, although I had them frightened enough for four years that I kept threatening the retirement system. That’s the best way to get them to listen to you, at least.
Roger Ream [00:41:05] And that’s what led to The Washington Post giving you the moniker as Reagan’s terrible swift sword. Right, Don?
Donald Devine [00:41:12] And so that’s what they called me. And in their international edition, they had on the front page a drawing of Che Guevara like Che Guevara and his hat, but my face on it.
Roger Ream [00:41:29] Well and you actually did reduce the size, actually.
Donald Devine [00:41:36] They got a 100,000 nondefense employees period. We reduced the pension benefits as rich as it still is now, it’s much less than it was. We changed that too. We put in a performance appraisal system that actually performance appraisal, by the way, I meant to say, is the only mechanism a government bureaucracy has. But what is a performance appraisal system, though? It asks the ones who are creating the problem how they’re doing. You know, it doesn’t quite work, but my predecessor did give us some tools to make it work again. Most of them are gone, but at least you could try to do that if you get in.
Roger Ream [00:42:32] Well, thank you very much, Don. I think it’s time to open this up to discussion. I think it would be great to have a conversation about fusionism. We’ll bring the podcast to an end. Thank you, Don, very much. Thank you for being very attentive. And we’ll cut the mics and we can let loose.
Donald Devine [00:42:55] All right. I like that much better.
Roger Ream [00:43:00] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it, and if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at Podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, DC. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time show courage in things large and small.
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