For a long time there has been a widespread belief that there is a simple solution to the government's need for money: "Soak the rich."

The popular notion is that the rich escape taxation because the law gives them many write-offs, loopholes and tax shelters, whereas the poor have no place to hide. The paychecks of the poor are visible, readily identifiable, and therefore easily taxed. The rich man defers his tax obligations. The poor man's tax is extracted from his paycheck before he gets his hands on it. Right?

A story on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post put a vastly different perpective on the matter. It said, "The proportion of Americans' personal income eaten up by the income tax has remained relatively constant over the past few years, at about 13 percent." But this average is achieved by having some people pay very little having some people to pay very little while ohters pay a great deal, and the imbalance is getting worse, not better.

The rich have long paid a disproportionate amount of income tax. The 25 percent of our population ewith the hoighest income pays 72 percent of the tax. And now inflation is also pushing the middle class into this high-tax category. We've begun to soak the middle class.

If you have not already seen the March issue of Harper's, please try to obtain a copy. You really ought to read "Disguising the Tax Burden" by Paul Craig Roberts.

Roberts is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and a consultant to the House Budget Committee. There is room here to quote very little of his article, but a few samples will give you the general idea.

"Even when they appear singly," Roberts says, "major tax increases have a way of slowing down the legislative process. It has to be worked out how to disguise the tax so everyone thinks it is falling on someone else.

"From the standpoint of the government's interest, tax reform is a necessity. The rich are a depleted resource, and so it is inevitable that the government will come up with a new source of revenue in tax reform.

"As is customary in these matters, twx reform will be justified on the grounds of 'equity,' that is, closing loopholes and helping the poor.

"Tax reform to help the poor is easy, because the poor don't pay any taxes. Therefore it doesn't cost the government anything."

Richards refers his readers to a table prepared bythe Tax Foundation from data published by the Internal Revenue Service. The table shows that half our taxpayers account for 7 percent of our total income tax collections, the other half 93 percent.

What about the "really rich"? He cites statistics that show 1,149 Americans with incomes of more than $1 million each during the year. They paid an average of $1,011,317 each in income taxes.

"All of us might pause," Richards suggests, "and ask what public services a taxpayer receives for a million dollars in income taxes."

(One answer might be: He receives the protection of a stable government that makes it possible for him to hang on to whatever was left after the taxes were paid.)

A few paragraphs further along, Richards says: "Most people think that tax reform means making the rich pay taxes. They do not realize that the purpose of closing loopholes is to enlarge the tax base by redefining personal income to include fringe benefits and capital gains and by reducing deductions.

"Enlarging the tax base will raise everyone's taxes, but it will have the most severe effect on middle-income earners.

"The government, of course, will give reassurance that it is only after the rich - just as it ded when it brought in the income tax in 1914. Initially, the personal income tax burden rested on only 357,515 people - less than one-half of 1 percent of the population. Only income in excess of $117,000 in today's dollar encountered the first surtax bracket of 2 percent. The top tax bracket of 7 percent was encountered only by income in excess of $2.9 million in today's dollars."

Uh huh. But look at the income tax laws now. They've come a long way, baby. And now we're left to wonder what will happen when the middle class also becomes a"depleted resource."