IN THIS PRECIOUS calm between the presidencies, absolutions are being generously granted to all nonbelievers who freely confess their sins. Nearly every day, one reads about another politician or wayward pundit who has come forward to express contrition for past errors and accept grace from the new church.

"Forgive me, Father, but I did now know that Ronald Reagan would carry 46 states and the U.S. Senate too. I now see the error of my ways. I now understand that the next president is the wisest, noblest one for the future and the American voters have truly chosen the path of righteousness -- hard righteousness."

Well, I have some confessions to make too. For the longest time in my burning adolescent years, I actually thought "laissez faire" was a dirty French expression for "let's do it."

When I was in college, I confess, I fell asleep over Locke and Mill and Adam Smith. Father, to tell the truth, when Milton Friedman was giving his dull sermons on TV, I would switch channels to "Love Boat." And, prostrate before the new conventional wisdom, I confess to never having read F.A. Hayek's "Road to Serfdom," which, I gather, is roughly equivalent to the Book of Revelations in this new conservative faith.

Anyway, despite the confessional atmosphere of Washington, I think I am going to stick with my agnosticism.

"Laissez faire" will have its season -- a fairly short season, I expect, in the long history of political ideas -- and it will give us all a salutary period of re-education, sorting out first principles and class interests, clarifying the important arguments. "Laissez faire" will win some victories too. But, forgive me, I do not believe it is the path of the future.

What I do believe is this: The 1980 election results, whether the voters intended it or not, promise a rare moment of redefinition in which both sides of the long-running ideological debate will confront their own contradictions. At last, the old liberal warriors who thought they spoke for public justice will have to examine why conservatives seem to have snatched the torch of idealism from their hands. And the "laissez faire" conservatives will discover eventually, I predict, that modern liberalism asked the right questions about American society, even if it often came up with wrong answers.

These pure abstractions of ideological principle will be settled by crass, messy, homely facts. There will be many such tests in the months ahead, defining "lassez faire" for us in gritty reality, as conservatives attempt to govern by their faith. Let me suggest one homely question that will define them for us: Who will pay the old folks' heating bills? When winter comes and oil prices keep climbing, who will make sure the old folks and the poor are warm in their homes?

The bleeding-heart liberal loves that kind of question because he already knows the knee-jerk answer. The federal government must intervene. We can't let those people freeze to death, just because they haven't the money to pay the heating bills. Not in America.

The foot-in-the-door liberal takes up this problem and proposes a modest experimental solution. The demonstration project is government's version of test marketing. Let's send a little loose federal cash to selected members of the deserving poor to help them with their heating bills. Not surprisingly, this test succeeds. The recipients are grateful for the cash. They do not freeze to death.

But, of course, this is only a bandaid solution which reveals the true size of the wound. There are, it is discovered, millions and millions of poor people who need the same sort of help. As oil prices continue to soar toward that mystical state of grace called the "free market price," more and more citizens find they can't pay their heating bills. The friendly: utility companies are loath to cut them off, but that bracing self-discipline called the "bottom line" makes no allowances for bleeding-heart charity.

At this point, the interest-group liberal begins to see opportunity -- the necessary combination of political interests, social and economic, that is needed to enact a substantial program. The old folks and the poor will get modest checks to help pay their fuel bills. The utility companies will get their bills paid. In the process, by the back door, a fundamental new principle of equity will be enunciated: the American right to a warm home.

At this point, according to liberal dogma, everyone ought to feel good. Only they don't. Instead of warm-hearted civic satisfaction, this new program, as it grows bigger and bigger, excites jealous arguments. Southern states ask: Why should the northern states get all the federal gravy? Because, the North replies, we get all the winter. But, the South argues back, we get all the summer. Our poor folks seldom freeze to death but they die of heat prostration.They need air conditioning. Besides, they drive automobiles and the rising price of gasoline hurts rural poor folks in Dixie just as much as the rising price of heating oil threatens poor city folks in New England. Where is the equity in a federal program which subsidizes one version of pain and ignores another?

Believe it or not, I have just described, in approximate terms, the actual debate which has surrounded this problem over the past few years, as Washington attempted to deal with the real distress of soaring oil prices. The idea of home-heating subsidies began modestly enough with the Community Services Administration, that pale descendant of the Sixties' war on poverty. CSA handed out $200 million in the winter of 1976-77, but the program has grown and diversified. Last winter, it consumed $1.6 billion. This year, an election season, Congress magnanimously authorized $3.1 billion to help poor folks, North and South, with their heating bills. While the appropriation was considerably smaller than that, one can see the established outlines of a major new version of welfare, one that will take its place alongside food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid and the others.

Yet none of those equity questions are resolved. The Southerners have a point, if not about air conditioning, certainly about gasoline prices. Why spend billions on home-heating subsidies and nothing on transportation? The next stage, I predict, will provoke further jealously and resentment among ordinary citizens. Probably we will learn of scandal in the program -- checks which are going to families who really aren't in need or utility companies ripping off customers in order to collect more at the federal trough.

In any case, even if the program is administered flawlessly, this is a classic illustration of why interest-group liberalism, despite its good intentions, spawns a vague, generalized sense of injustice. Every citizen, after all, is paying higher fuel bills. Nobody in Washington seems to care about that. Why does the government always seem to favor one group over another? Aren't we all equal as citizens?

Does liberalism, by its nature, actually create this sense of injustice? I think it does.

When a citizen looks at the multitudinous activities of the federal labyrinth, he can see, regardless of his own particular well-being, that a thousand deals are being made between the government and particular groups of which he is not a member. Most of these deals, whether they are subsidies to build ships or payments to grow less cotton or loans to middle-class college students, appear much less virtuous than helping old folks with their heating bills.

Interest-group liberalism makes promises it cannot keep and, worse than that, it bargains with certain groups of citizens, excluding others from the deal (for a classical and less sympathetic discussion of this point, see "The End of Liberalism," by Theodore J. Lowi, W.W. Norton, 1979). That is the fallacy of pluralist liberalism, which seeks justice by organizing citizens into unequal groups and dealing, one by one, with each group's grievances, afflictions, insecurities.

But doing good, one by one, breeds generalized hostility toward government as well as gratitude. Until the liberal theorist bring themselves to confront this contradiction, I think they will continue to be puzzled by the public discontents with liberal solutions.

In any case, this feeling, more than anything else, is what gives energy to the idealism of "laissez faire" conservatives, the belief that they are standing up to the citadels of favoritism, the rank spoils of Washington deal-making. Instead, they propose a citizenship which seems purer, not only free of government intervention, but free of government enticement. Liberals worry about private interests corrupting the government; conservatives worry about the government corrupting the citizens.

So now it is their turn. And I ask again: Who will pay the old folks' heating bills this winter? We have been told repeatedly that a "free market" in oil prices will be good for us; now, as decontrol approaches, we are about discover whether that is true (the conservatives seem not to mind that this "free market" is dominated by interlocking cartels). As oil prices rise next year, the old folks can turn down their thermostats again. Those rural folks in the South can drive less and walk more.

We know the liberal fallacy. Now here is the "laissez faire" fallacy: the belief that government, led by bleeding-heart, knee-jerk, limousine liberals, foisted this multitude of federal interventions on an unsuspecting citizenry. That article of faith is crucial to the conservatives' vision of dismantling government, but it does not match reality. And it does not tell us how "laissez faire" can cope with problems when those vast groups of citizens organize themselves into "interests" and demand relief.

Robert Teeter, the well-regarded republican pollster, told a recent post-election conference that he sees four new issues coming up fast in voter consciousness, demanding attention from politicians. They are soaring health costs, the quality of public education, the danger of toxic wastes and oil prices. Liberals know how they would confront those issues; the "laissez faire" approach would be to leave them alone, let the "marketplace" produce the solution. Perhaps that is what will happen.

Or the "laissez faire" disciples, now that they have power, can blink. That's what I expect. I do not really think this next Congress is going to turn off the heat for the poor folks. But perhaps, as a confessed agnostic, I underestimate the purity of the "laissez faire" faith.

Either way, the results will be marvelously clarifying for Americans. I said before that interest-group liberalism did ask the right question. That question was: Can the dynamic benefits of free-market capitalism be reconciled with the American longing for a just society? When the new religion comes to town, I think that old question is going to be back on the table, still searching for a convincing answer.