Paul Johnson shook his substantial mop of red hair and confessed, maybe with some sorrow, that "I once thought liberty was divisible -- that you could have very great personal liberty within the framework of substantial state control of the economy."

At 51, he has concluded personal liberty starts down the drain when the state starts running everything.

"You say," I ventured, "that you now believe personal liberty fares badly when the state starts running everything.Have you run into people who say that is obvious and that only a jackass ever had any doubts about it?"

"Oh yes," he said. "And I don't mind admitting I was quite wrong."

A former editor of the lefty journal, The New Statesman, Johnson is now a great admirer of the conservative Margaret Thatcher.

"Some people, like St. Paul, have blinding flashes on the Damascus Road and reverse direction after that, while others gradually decide their first notions were wrong and gradually change, to the point they turn 180 degrees, and I wonder how your change came." I asked.

"I really have always been an empiricist," he said, "and interested in whether something works. When I was young, Labor was on the side of the individual, but now it is the opposite. The thing that finally convinced me was the question of the closed shop."

Johnson came in from London for a lecture last night for the American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, and his humor did not quite conceal his anger toward the "Frankenstein state," which he thinks is not only a dud, but evil as well.

It may have been the Consultative Council on Badgers (there is such an agency in England) that steamed him up on the topic of governmental takeovers in all fields, or it may not.

Nothing is easier, of course, than making fun of agencies of government and it is possible (an American may well think) that England badly needs the Consultative Council on Badgers. Especially when we have seen letters in the English press dealing with the plight of "dusty badgers" who suffered a good bit in the recent drouth.

But it's not just badgers, apparently:

"Last year the British government found itself owning wholly or in part 1,104 businesses, the great majority of them running at a loss," he said.

". . . They include businesses making concrete, asbestos, electrical equipment, chemicals, ships, marine equipment, engaged in printing, publishing, construction, civil engineering, cold storage, furniture removal, nuclear power, oil, gas, rolling mills, quarries, canals, harbors, every conceivable kind of transport, hotels, motels, safari lodges, catering, communications of all kinds, cotton, sugar, tea, cocoa and coffee estates, waste-incineration, laboratories, tanneries, finance companies, movie studios -- everything, including a chain of bars, a string of race horses and a football team.

"You name it; we own it, and it runs at a loss."

Can this be the man who once urged England down the Socialist path?

One good thing about life, he said in a chat before his Francis Boyer Lecture at the Washington Hilton Hotel, is that you can learn more and you can grow.

He was editied, he went on, by further study of ancient civilizations, if somewhat dismayed to notice that strong governmental control was a feature of some of the earliest great civilizations -- Egypt, for example -- and that control was the chief reason mankind progressed so very slowly.

But beneath his proxmirish examples of badger councils and other seeming horrors of swollen government lies his far more basic concern:

There are absolutes, he thinks, even if nobody seems to think so. "Murder, for example," he has written "is absoultely wrong," and not merely bad policy or usually wrong except in certain instances.

He is a Roman Catholic, he has pointed out, and therefore believes in God. But even savage societies have had no doubt there is real good and real evil.

He ranges widely in his books, the most arresting of which may be "Enemies of Society" in which he takes on education, art, sociology, government and much else and finds them wanting.

He is outraged at the general campaign against what is called "elitism." He has cited Lenin who had much to say about improving the lot of mankind and who also made it clear that all this improving was to be under the direct and full control of an elite.

"There is always going to be an elite," Johnson said, heating up a bit, "and the question is whether it is going to be a natural rising to the top or whether it is to be imposed and controlled."

The world is all too full, he suggests, of people who can try out zany notions in such fields as education, which would be all right except that it's children -- especially in poor schools which may seem expendable for addled experimenting -- who suffer. He cites schools in which especially bright children are told it's wrong for them to be bright.

When the state gets carried away, he argues, with doing good for badgers, etc., it starts failing its crucial duties of seeing to defense, sound money, and indeed justice.

The first thing you know a demagogue in Iran is convinced a great nation is powerless to act.

"There has to be judgment, but there also has to be courage. America is the world leader. It's not altogether an enviable position, but it's a noble position. But the past few years America has thought it could avoid risks."

"But aren't there great risks," I asked, "of direct head-on squabbling with the Soviets, say, if force were used in Iran?"

"There are risks of not using force, too," he said. In one of his widely quoted dialogues he argued that a great state must not only have force to command, but be willing to use it, and this willingness to use force must be universally perceived.

Iran, he said, is a case in which it was not believed the United States either could or would use force when its embassy was seized.

But there must be a near-reverence for law (he has seen a certain contempt for it in the western world) and this, in turn, requires the concept that some norms are fixed and not susceptible to casual tampering.

He prefaces one of his books with the remark of Hobbes, that "hell is truth seen too late."

Like most aphorisms it may be largely nonsense, and Johnson did not look overly burned, though he changed course somewhat late in his life.

"You were so sure when you were younger that the road towards socialism was the right one, and now you feel so differently. What if you were right the first time and wrong now," I asked.

Well. A man can do no more than keep learning as much as he can, try to be as honest as he can, and take the side that seems superior in reason and morals.

And in Johnson's case, it led to the birthing of a conservative.

Still and all, what if the badgers have only government to defend their rights?