CHARLES PETERS came to Washington from West Virginia by way of the Peace Corps, and in 1968 founded The Washington Monthly , an iconoclastic periodical of which he remains editor in chief. Peters describes himself, fairly, as a man with "a self-proclaimed mission to make government more responsive to people." He's a muckraker and reformer of serious intent, not a popular entertainer, and his magazine faithfully reflects those fixed priorities.

The Washington Monthly's hallmark has been the analytical expose, the informed and dispassionate description of the precise reasons why a particular governmental program or agency has failed. Cumulatively, the Monthly's articles impart a gloomy conviction that ineffectiveness and inequity are characteristic of American government in all its parts, but no individual case study can hope to diagnose fully the general malaise, nor prescribe a general cure. What's needed is an overview, a synthesis, a theory suited to broad application and the fashioning of solutions. These Peters now attempts to supply, with somewhat startling results.

Peter's title -- "How Washington Really Works" -- is of course intended ironically. "The truth is that Washington doesn't really work," he declares. "The government is not solving the nation's problems." This failure Peters does not ascribe to corruption, complexity, or the inherent tendency of policy's reach to exceed its grasp. He asserts instead that government fails because officials and workers aren't motivated to make it work; they are "busy building networks of people who will assure their survival in power," rather than using their power to solve real problems. t"I do believe," Peters writes, "that most of what the government appears to do is make-believe carried on for the benefit of those in office, not the rest of us."

The press must bear much of the blame, Peters feels, for a system in which "make-believe" actually enhances, rather than threatens, political and occupational survival. Journalists, he argues, are themselves caught up in a world of make believe, a world in which the quick headline, the rude-question tossed out at a press conference, or the cozy cultivation of a supposedly prestigious source all advance a reporter's career -- without enlightening the reporter's audience. Public officials cater to journalistic make-believe by staging clorful but inconsequential dramas, while unglamorous tasks such as congressional oversight are given short shrift:

"Since [a congressman] knows of no sign, not even the faintest indication, that the public understands the importance of skillful oversight and might reward him at the polls for it, the ultimate villain behind make-believe on Capitol Hill is the ignorance of the people and the sloth and ineptitude of those who are charged with informing and educating them."

Peters reserves equally harsh words for lobbyists, bureaucrats, diplomats, the military the courts, members of Congress and presidents. He depicts each institution almost as an ecosystem, populated with individuals whose principal motivations are survival and self-promotion, and who recognize that bold and effective actions do not serve these goals. Gresham's Law thus distorts a governmental form of Darwinism: bad qualities (phoniness, sloth, budget-padding and the like) drive good qualities currently confer a selective advantage in the struggle for survival.

There's something remarkable in the unity and cohesiveness

Peters must recognize this problem, because he ultimately rests his hopes with a "rebirth of patriotism" a civic form of moral rearmament that implies redemption is possible, at least in response to nobler incentives than government employment now provides. If his tone seems a bit forlorn, however, it's because Peters' own argument assumes that noble instincts have already atrophied, like disused organs. There's no room in his theory for the possibility that motivations are complex, that ensuring survival is not a constant vigil, or that officials may already be committed to ideals, to sound public policy and selfless public service, yet still be frustrated by such constants as corruption, complexity, or the inherent tendency of policy's reach to exceed its grasp. No room, because then there'd be no simple, comprehensive explanation of why government fails, and that simple explanation, that one key to understanding, is precisely what Peters seeks.

None of this detracts in the slightest from the force of significance of Peters' argument. The most enduring political theorists -- Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau -- each argued from a simplified premise of human nature, and Peters' premise deserves equally serious consideration, particularly because in many situations he describes it is demonstrably correct. But it seems a bit curious that the same Charles Peters runs the magazine that once bestowed its top book prize on Ward Just's The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert -- a work, as its title suggests, indicating that officials not only have sould, but wonderfully elaborate and ambivalent ones at that.