If the Reagan administration can't balance the budget, who can?

That is the question that put Wall Street in a panic last year and has Republican politicians-- and many voters--in a panic today. Last year the administration could still tell its supporters that a balanced budget lay ahead if they would just stay the course. This year it has given up that pretense. Deficits are projected for all four years of the Reagan term, and the only argument the administration gets from anyone is that the deficits will be even larger than projected.

The administration has a number of arguments--good, reasonable arguments--with which it tries to calm its supporters: The deficit isn't all that large anyway, as a percentage of gross national product. Much of the deficit results from the unexpectedly rapid fall in the rate of inflation (the one economic development of 1981 the administration wants to take responsibility for). Other countries--West Germany and Japan, for instance--run large deficits and still hold down inflation. And spending on some domestic programs is really being cut.

But for most Republicans these arguments are beside the point. For them the issue is not so much economic as it is theological. Deficits are not simply an inconvenience; they are deeply immoral. A balanced budget symbolizes the order and stability that good government is supposed to provide.

Such beliefs are not just superstitions; an intellectually respectable case can be made for them. The Republican politicians of the 1950s and 1960s, who in public oratory liked to say that the federal budget was like a family budget, knew that comparison was misleading. To more sophisticated audiences, they would argue that insisting on a balanced budget, even in some years when it might otherwise be better to run a small deficit, imposed a useful discipline on government spending, in much the same way the Social Security payroll tax for many years imposed a useful discipline on Social Security benefits. Who wouldn't want to raise benefits, if cost were not an issue? The requirement that the budget be balanced, like the requirement that Social Security benefits be financed out of taxes, reminded both politicians and voters that government programs have to be paid for and gave them a reasonable idea of how much society could afford to spend.

The administration may turn out to be right: the deficits may turn out not to matter, the country may return to prosperity, and the Republicans may triumph in the 1982 and 1984 elections. But even if all those things happen, the Republicans will have lost something precious: the confidence that their policies are morally superior. They can always argue, plausibly, that under the Democrats deficits would be higher. But they can never again campaign as the party that can be counted on to balance the budget.