TAKEN MISCHIEVOUSLY out of context, the articulate essays of political philosopher Michael Walzer could provide fresh material for Ronald Reagan in his standard conservative attack against the American welfare state.

In withering critiques, Walzer makes the following related points about the effects of big government and welfare statism:

The welfare state "involves a surrender of everyone's say . . . a surrender of any popular role in determining the shape and substance, the day-to-day quality of our common life."

People in the welfare state are "newly licensed to have needs, but not yet intentions or plans of their own."

With the increasing size of the state, the growing power of administration, the decline of political life, "the state becomes an arena in which men and women do not act, but watch the action and like other audiences, are acted upon."

"Organizing and advocacy in the contemporary welfare state creates clients -- first of all for the organizers and advocates, and then for the state -- not self-determining men and women."

The welfare state, argues Walzer, must "be held tightly to its own limits, drained of whatever superfluous moral content and unnecessary political power it has usurped, reduced so far as possible to a transparent administration shell (overarching, protective, enabling) within which smaller groups can grow and prosper. The state is not going to wither away; it must be hollowed out."

Walzer's analyses of the defects of contemporary American welfare statism and liberalism are uniquely valuable because his criticisms come not from the point of view and perspective of a conservative at all, but from those of a dedicated socialist who approves of the expansion of welfare rights and benefits for the aged, the poor, the minorities, all those who had been left out and ignored. What bothers him about the welfare state is not the provision of benefits, but the growth in power of the bureaucratic state, and concurrent loss of popular democracy.

One must quickly explain that Walzer's idealistic concepts no more fit our crude stereotyping of socialist thought or the actual practice of existing, so-called socialist states than they match the conservatism of Ronald Reagan. Walzer's deepest interest and beliefs are best characterized in the subtitle of Radical Principles, for these are truly "the reflections of an unreconstructed democrat."

In the 18 essays in this important book, Walzer, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, comments with lucidity on many of the nation's important domestic political issues of the last 15 years. But his overriding theme is the search for a better society, a self-governing democracy of free men and women dedicated both to protecting their own individual freedoms and to pursuing a common purpose.

Walzer's ideal republic admittedly is utopian -- about which he offers mostly theoretical insights. (This is not a how-to guidebook.) But it is just this idealism, tempered by his own fairness, moderation and honest self-criticism, which makes the author a particularly interesting analyst of the contemporary problems of American society.

Walzer sees a variety of seemingly diverse ideologies -- "liberalism, capitalism, modernism, welfare statism" -- as all contributing to a shattered society in which traditional values and institutions have decayed, leaving lonely individuals to pursue their selfish interests without a sense of community and common purpose, without collective self-discipline and, most importantly, without a commitment to a vital participation in self-government.

He properly praises as "an enormous political achievement" the triumph of liberalism in expanding the range of personal liberty and basic material benefits for individual American citizens. Where liberalism has failed is in its lack of vision about what man needs after he has achieved freedom and material security. The assumption of the liberal theorists was that once the utilitarian purposes of politics were achieved, citizens would turn away from public to private life. The fundamental difficulty of liberal utilitarianism, says Walzer, is that the sole standard of utility "is the welfare of an individual absolutely free to make his own choices and measure his own happiness. In fact, however, no such individual has ever existed."

As a result, civic virtue is at low ebb, no common purposes are defined, and political power is left almost by default in the hands of an increasingly cumbersome bureaucratic and impersonal state government.

The liberals failed to realize that "politics is something more than welfare production," the government must be responsive to the concrete will of citizens, not merely to their conventionally defined desired, and that social scale is important -- "that society must be built on a human scale accessible to our minds and feelings, responsible to our decisions."

When it comes to solutions, Walzer quickly dismisses the conservatives and neoconservatives as offering either nostalgia for a past that never was, or the solution that the poor and minorities show proper self-discipline and get back in their proper places. He says the neoconservatives are really "nervous liberals and what they are nervous about is liberalism," which recently has liberated too many people from the restraints of old strictures and institutions.

So far as the neoconservative theory, espoused by Irving Kristol, that both income and intelligence within the U.S. population are logically distributed along similar bell-shaped curves. Walzer proclaims: "In the United States, nature is triumphant. We are all perfectly bell-shaped." But he questions seriously how one can seek to use one measure to judge the whole range and variety of human capacities and virtues: intelligence, physical strength, agility, grace, artistic creativity, mechanical skill, leadership, endurance, memory, psychological insight, capacity for hard work, moral strength, sensitivity, ability to express compassion.

He is equally impatient with the notion that the country can be ruled wisely by a "new class" of intellecutuals and professionals, who share, according to one proponent, "a culture of critical discourse (CCD)." Walzer wonders whether the new classers don't have "CCD" in pretty much the same way that "capitalists have capital, homeowners have homes, and cancer victims have cancer." What the new class really represents is an individualist and consumerist neo-bourgeoisie whose members owe their middle-and upper-middle-class status to their ability to earn educational certificates and to occupy a range of positions in state and economy.

But Walzer is equally hard on the pretension, arrogance, and lack of democracy he sees on the political left He finds Marxism inadequate both in theory and practice, with its outbursts of irrational savagery long wars, failure of working-class parties to produce socialist societies, the drift toward authoritarianism, and intense nationalism. Furthermore, he realizes the Marxists badly underestimated the attractions of bourgeois political culture, the achievement of legal equality, legitimate opposition and liberation.

He also has little patience with American leftists, who in their search for an independent identity, respeatedly turn liberals into their "chief enemy," failing to recognize that there is a certain continuity between liberal success and radical aspiration, and that there are shared concerns and a need to work together.

Walzer longs for a utopian socialist society with "a democratically run economy alongside a democratically run state" at its core. He visualizes a "vanguardless revolution," a gradual movement in which a new class of activist citizens will win a series of accomodations and gradually find a larger scope for their political activity and cultural influence.

Walzer doesn't pretend to know whether his socialist vision can be realized, but whether one shares his socialist economic ideas or not -- and I do not -- he offers a number of useful ideas to those Americans, of many political persuasions, who share a concern about the impersonality of goverment today, the lack of a shared citizen dedication to addressing national crises, and the lack of a more vibrant participatory democracy.

Just how one fosters greater participation in self-government is a most difficult question. As Oscar Wilde once observed, "socialism would take too many evenings."

Obviously, some decentralization of power would help, if citizens could be encouraged to seek and share power at the level of the neighborhood, the precinct, the workshop, the community. Sensitive to the needs of self-government on a more manageable human scale, citizens could, as Walzer suggests, seek new procedures in government on a more manageable human scale, citizens could, as Walzer suggests, seek new procedures in government so that "bureaucratic services make possible rather than replace local decision making."

But participatory democracy has its built-in problems as well; the people who inevitably won't go to the meetings have rights, interests and opinions which must be protected. "Participatory democracy has to be paralleled by presentative democracy," writes Walzer. "Without it, we will only get one or another sort of activist or apparatchik tyranny."

Walzer's philosophical observations indirectly offer wisdom about dealing with one of the knottier present problems in American domestic politics: the effective selection of good presidential candidates.

In a reaction against establishment power exercised in proverbial smoke-filled rooms, liberal activists in the Democratic party reformed the nomination procedures (Republican nominating procedures changed as well) so that participant activists could organize and nominate a candidate such as George McGovern in 1972. A reaction against the power of the that minority of activists led to the present proliferation of primaries, in which a variety of candidates, vitally dependent on media success, need to make a rapid and positive impression on the electorate.

In the past, the alleged old-style pols undoubtedly wielded too much power; with the succession of reforms in recent years too many of these politicians -- our elected representatives -- have been totally excluded from the process.

A blend of participatory and representative democracy might give us a better mix of citizens who could then gather at a convention and pick a presidential candidate. Walzer acknowledges that he is not certain how one precisely gets the right blend, how one adjusts the power shared between active participating citizens and the larger electorate to whom those citizens must be responsible.

The strength of the essays in Radical Principles is not that Walzer provides answers to these difficult problems of effective democracy, but that he poses them, urging us all to a greater and more thoughtful commitment to civic virtue.