This column is about institutional lies. These are lies that sort of come with the position--like the lies employers tell employes, advertisers tell consumers, children tell parents and, or so it is rumored, parents tell children. Maybe the worst lies of all, though, are the lies politicians tell voters. One of them is that you can declare war on crime.

At the moment, America is at war against crime. Poor crime must be on the retreat. You can just hear the criminals yelling, "Fall back, fall back," and hear the patter of their sneaky feet as they hightail it out of wherever they happen to be. The reason for this war is the upcoming elections. Criminals must be quaking in their boots.

If you are a politician, there is nothing quite as bad as being called "soft on crime." This is worse than being charged with sleeping with little girls or, just to be trendy, little boys. It is a more serious sin than being a tad corrupt, or a bit of a liar or, God forbid, stupid. All this is forgivable. Being soft on crime is not.

It is hard to say exactly what being tough on crime entails. It can mean so much. At a minimum, though, it has come to mean that you are for hiring all the cops you can so that they can then arrest all the criminals they can. It means that you are against lenient sentences, humane judges, plea bargaining, parole, probation and bond. It means that you are for capital punishment, throwing the book at criminals, victims' rights (whatever that might mean) and a general disregard for the Constitution if it happens to either handicap or thwart the arrest and prosecution of a criminal.

But none of this is certain to reduce crime. The fact of the matter is that crime often increases or decreases for wholly mysterious or uncontrollable reasons--like the number of male youths in the population. The number of murders in New York recently fell 14.4 percent, for instance, but no one knows exactly why. And it is to the everlasting credit of the police chief there, Robert J. McGuire, that when asked to account for the wonderful new numbers, he simply said he could not.

None of the so-called remedies are truly that. Periodic crackdowns in which the police saturate an area usually result in crime merely moving to another area. Stiff jail terms don't seem to do more than crowd the jails and measures having to do with bail or parole or probation can only have an effect on a minority of the criminal population--those who get caught. The fact is that most crimes go unpunished for the simple reason that the criminals responsible for them go uncaught. You cannot punish someone you do not have.

In some sense, crime is no different than other subjects that are so tied up in myth and fear that politicians are loath to talk candidly about them. The budget, of all things, is another example. Americans believe passionately in a balanced budget and they are convinced that an unbalanced budget causes inflation. Not quite. Most of the time, there seems to be no link between the deficit and the inflation rate. Politicians, though, continue to make that link. It's what the public expects.

When it comes to crime, it is not that nothing works. To a degree, most of the standard anticrime measures do work. But no single one and no combination of them all is a panacea. Clearly the police are of value and just as clearly jail serves a purpose. But no city can afford to put a cop on every block and no state could afford to build jails on a scale to imprison the entire criminal population. Financially and constitutionally, there is a limit to what can be done.

It is ironic that many of the calls for a war on crime come from the political right. Without realizing it, it has adopted the lexicon of liberalism. Instead of a war on poverty or a war on cancer, it wants the old solution of lots of money and governmental mobilization trained on something else: crime.

But just as the causes of poverty remain in some ways hidden and just as some cancers still elude our intellectual grasp, so do the causes of crime remain mysterious. As for politicians, we would all be better off if instead of declaring war on crime, they acknowledged the truth and declared war on pandering to the electorate. That, at least, is one war that could be won.