On the day the government ran out of O money, there was a certain amount of understandable chaos. Some people did not know whether to go to work and some people did not know what to do when they got there -- although how this was new was not exactly clear. What was clear, though, was that the government had gone out on strike against the American people.

This, of course, was not the way it was put. It was presented as a clash between the Congress on the one hand and the Reagan administration on the other. The difference was supposed to be something like $2 billion, which is not, as we all know, real money anymore. The issue, however, was supposed to be something greater -- the success of the Reagan Economic Program.

It is for that reason, that the White House itself went to the mattresses. It sent home workers by the score -- even including the volunteers who answer phone calls from the public. Instead of the volunteers, callers got a recording: "In the absence of appropriations, the White House is involved in an orderly phase-out. All nonessential personnel have been furloughed. No one is here to answer your call."

Now I suppose we should all be grateful that Washington is not the sort of town that lends itself to metaphysical discussions about who is and who is not essential. Is a president who does not need to be awakened in the night to learn that American warplanes have been attacked essential and, just as long as we're playing this game, where was George Bush yesterday? It is not even the sort of town that wonders why volunteers were sent home since they are not paid anyway.

But if Washington had wondered about these matters, it would have concluded that the government had gone out on strike against the people. This is the first time this has been done on this scale, although there have been plenty of times when the government failed to take the side of the people. The Pullman strike comes to mind. But when it comes to an out-and-out strike, this is surely a first and it could only be accomplished after the administration firmly established the principle that the workers themselves did not have the right to strike. It then asked them to come in for the day so they could shut things down. This is the bureaucratic equivalent of having the condemned man dig his own grave.

After all, the government is not really out of money. It has, in fact, plenty of money. This is a mere bookkeeping transaction that may or may not come down to a matter of principle. The really important principle, as usual in these matters, is that the innocent suffer. Congress and the administration were locked in battle, each side prepared to hold out until the last federal worker lost his house or had to yank his kid out of college.

So having gone out on strike, the government now has to explain the difference between what it did and what it barred its employes from doing. When it comes to government workers, the theory is that they cannot be permitted to strike against the public good. This, as we now all know, is something only the government itself can do.

It is of course true that the government intended to keep essential services going. It did that, for instance, when the air traffic controllers hit the bricks. But the law is not limited to essential workers or essential services. The law forbids all federal workers from striking and those who do are driven into some sort of occupational wilderness. Never again will they work for Uncle Sam.

But now these same workers who have been told they cannot under any circumstances strike, were told not to come to work -- or, to be a tad more precise, were told to come to work so that they would not have to come to work anymore. People who one minute were too essential to be permitted to strike were no longer essential at all. Apparently, this is something only a president can do.

For federal workers, this must be the ultimate indignity. And for the White House and Congress, this is an awful predicament. But for the rest of us it should not matter if the government strikes the workers or the workers strike the government. The effect is the same -- and so is the remedy. Let's decertify the government, and hire some new people. president can do.

For federal workers, this must be the ultimate indignity. And for the White House and Congress, this is an awful predicament. But for the rest of us it should not matter if the government strikes the workers or the workers strike the government. The effect is the same -- and so is the remedy. Let's decertify the government, and hire some new people.