THE TIME has come, perhaps, to ask the question modern liberalism has always ducked: Who owns America? Why is the wealth of this fantastic, egalitarian nation distributed so unjustly? Why must capital and its attendant political power be concentrated in the hands of the few while the masses have only a mortgage and, if they are lucky, a modest persion?

The questions themselves sound vaguely Marxist, which is one reason why welfare-state liberals have always ducked. Liberalism is defined and disciplined by its right-wing adversaries, whose red-baiting effectively scares off new ideas, even new questions. I could make an argument that the long march of liberal solutions to social injustice -- tinkering with wage floors, moving cash from one group to another, propping up the poor and the weak, protecting the sick and the jobless from catastrophe -- all these are evasions of the more fundamental questions about wealth and its gross maldistribution.

If liberal government could not do anything about the distribution of wealth, then it must concentrate on wages and particular benefits, propelling the welfare state deeper and deeper into private economic choices. Essentially, the federal government hands out coupons, little tickets that entitle qualified citizens to buy food at a supermarket, to occupy an apartment in a subsidized building, to buy medicine at the ghetto pharmacy, to pick up a little cash on the first of the month, to bill the Treasury for catastrophic illness.

No one who has talked to the recipients of these benefits or examined their actual condition can feel very satisfied with the results. Real pain and suffering, even hunger, truly are alleviated, but these people, still poor, have become prisoners of the government coupons.

The liberal imagination, knowing that real improvements in ordinary lives have flowed from the security programs, will insist on renewed dedication to the concept. If injustice persists, if some people still live in degradation while the rest of us live in royal luxury, then we must tinker with the coupons. Increase their cash value. Or invent new coupons for other items that these people cannot afford. Cars? Air conditioners? French bread?

Roughly speaking, this is the road American politics traveled to its present frustrations. The liveral mindset, honorable and well-intentioned, cannot confront the natural limits that always will stand in its way. One crucial boundary in the politics of redistributing cash is the private wage system. Nobody really believes Washington should give a nonworker coupons that are more generous than the wages earned by his neighbor, the worker.

The other limitation is less obvious but more harsh: As the welfare state created safety nets for the poor and the weak, other, stronger groups in society invented their own versions of coupons, serving their own needs, and sold them to the government. Pricesupport systems for farmers; tax loopholes and housing subsidies for the middle class; guaranteed markets for industrial sectors; guaranteed jobs for unions strong enough to demand them.

I could argue that, in the final balance, the welfare state cares best for the prosperous, not the poor. But the main point is that virtually everyone, every economic sector, now participates in the government transfer of cash from one pocket to another. Meanwhile, the fundamental injustice of concentrated wealth is not altered in the slightest.

WHO OWNS America? I am pleased to report that this question will be raised next winter when all conventional politicians are campaigning in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Not by a bunch of parlor lefties. Not by desperate liberals searching for jazzy new rhetoric. The question will be raised by a strange little group called the Ownership Campaign which, if one forced an ideological identity on this eclectic collection of individuals, probably would be called right-of-center.

The Ownership Campaign is an assortment of businessmen, government technocrats, old labor types, young idealists and blue-collar political neophytes. All of them came from different starting points to a shared conclusion: The welfare state fails ultimately to achieve justice; the government must intervene instead to create a broad distribution of capital wealth, stock ownership in the new productivity capacity of the future.

These inspired amateurs think this is the idea of the 1980s, since it did not become the idea of the 1970s. They see a way to renew industrial growth in America, to share the benefits of capitalism more equitably and to climb out of the cul-de-sac created by modern liberalism, the continuous elaboration of coupons. They belive labor should earn capital as well as wages. They believe citizens will never derive ecomomic security, not to mention independence, as long as their well-being depends on government decisions.

This is the voice of economic individualism -- the old American dream of yeoman independence that was buried in the modern era of big government, big corporations. These people are taking the original impulses of the American experience and trying to graft them onto modern corporate capitalism. At the edges, there is a barbarous yelp of protest borrowed from Ayn Rand. The heart of the idea, including the approach to banking and credit, is as old as Jefferson and Jackson, more radical than any reform entertained by the New Deal.

To grasp the full historical flavor, forget about all of the modern subsidy programs created in the last 40 years. Think instead of the really radical coupons handed out by government in the 19th century -- Lincoln's Homestead Act. Through the national government, vast wealth was distributed free to ordinary Americans, including new immigrants, regardless of birth or education or economic status. The wealth was land and it was given freely, with one crucial condition: The people had to make it productive.

The ownership guerrillas believe stock in new industrial capacity can be distributed similarly, setting interest rates for ventures that represent real growth -- not the paper games of borrowing and buying. Unlike the Marxist systems of shared wealth, nothing would be taken from the rich. Nor would the new factory become a stateowned industry, as in Britain or France. Anyone who has ever tried to use a telephone in France knows the limits of state socialism.

THOSE WHO find single-issue politics nettlesome and disruptive may be especially aggravated by the Ownership Campaign. It is raising money to enter not one, but two candidates in the 1980 New Hampshire primary -- a Republican and a Democrat who will campaign jointly, share advertising costs and generally try to make the other conventional candidates take them seriously.

Neither major party has the intellectual vitality to take the plunge on this idea, though either could claim it as consistent with its past. The Ownership Campaign may end up looking silly, but can count itself successful if the horde of presidential candidates begins stealing their material.

Hold the smug laughter, for now. Some folks out there already understand this ownership pitch. When the farmers took their tractors to the Federal Reserve Board, demanding 3 percent interest rates, they were responding to the credit arguments of Norman Kurland, chairman of the Ownership Campaign. Kurland knows little about politics but he is one of those brilliantly obsessed figures one encounters in Washington, a person who cares more about ideas then making a living. Kurland has been pushing stock-ownership plans for more than a decade, undaunted by his limited success. He is the rarest combination -- a creature who understands the banking laws yet continues to believe in the possibility of economic justice.

His political director is 25-year-old Luis Granados, a newly graduated lawyer from Takoma Park, who knows the operations of a political campaign from serving local candidates but who lacks the jaded amorality of experienced operatives. Granados learned economics from ordinary experience:

"I grew up middle class," he said. "I got a scholarship to a fancy prep school and I saw that end. Then I saw the other end, campaigning in poor neighborhoods. I just think the distribution of wealth is wrong. There's not sufficient difference in people to justify the differences in wealth."

This observation matches my own experiences as a reporter. Over the years, I have had many encounters with people on the bottom rung of our society -- white mountaineers, black youths in the cities, migrant workers, poor people urban and rural. I always come away with a chilly feeling, a fresh recognition that most poor people could perform just as well as the rest of us, if they had gotten a few lucky rolls of the dice.

Others in the Ownership Campaign are not exactly bleeding hearts. They include Tim Maloney, a young new state legislator from Prince George's County; Anthony M. Carey, partner in a high-toned Baltimore law firm; Joe Rourke, a retired Massachusetts labor leader, and Wally Johnson, a former Republican mayor of Berkeley, Calif., who runs an aluminum scaffolding company called Up Right Inc.

Johnson is the only one with experience in a presidential primary. He received 35,000 votes in New Hampshire in 1976, running for vice president in the GOP primary on a single issue opposing congressional pay raises. This was 12,000 votes more than Jimmy Carter got in New Hampshire, but the press ignored Wally Johnson because he was not deemed to be serious.

SERIOUS political people will be hostile to this idea. They will endorse the rhetoric of broadened ownership because it sounds like Mom and apple pie, but the major power centers of American politics feel threatened by the idea of actually distributing capital ownership to everyone.

Organized labor sees it as compromising the hard and clean lines of worker-management bargaining. Corporate management distrusts it as an ultimate threat to its own control of corporate behavior. Technocrats devoted to managing the welfare state do not wish for its demise. No-growth environmentalists do want a new industrial boom for this country. Statusconscious conservatives are offended by the egalitarian premise.

Listen carefully to their objections. These people have impressive arguments on why this scheme will not work or why it should not be tried. Listen, then ask yourself what these experts would have told Lincoln about his crazy plan for homesteading.