WILLIE SUTTON robbed banks because that's where the money was. Is there a lesson for the politicians in Willie's simple philosophy? God forfend that they should rob banks. But why not soak the rich? The assets of the wealthiest 1 percent of our people would pay off the national debt, eliminate $100 billion a year in interest payments from the federal treasury and balance the budget.

It is a modest proposal.

Americans have toyed with the idea for years. It underlies the progressive income tax, excess-profit taxes, surtaxes and inheritance taxes. But these measures have not mortally afflicted the affluent. Sixty years ago, 1 percent of our people possessed about 32 percent of America's private wealth. Ten years ago, when the numbers were last calculated, the share owned by the top l percent was about 21 percent.

The pattern of income distribution has changed even less. In 1910, during the stewardship of William Howard Taft, 46 percent of the national income went to the 20 percent of the people at the top; the bottom 20 percent got 8 percent. Today, after the redistributive tinkerings of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society, the share going to the top 20 percent is a bit over 40 percent; the 20 percent at the bottom have a 5 percent share.

There is nothing un-American in contemplating this matter of wealth. Our politics always have focused on the question of who gets what and never more so than today with every claque in the country organized as a special-interest group. The wonder is that no "soak the rich" lobby is doing battle in Washington in the 1980s.

It is not to be expected that the Republicans would mount the crusade. But there is not a whisper from the Democrats, either. Even the little band of U.S. Marxists is silent, preferring to debate whether Lenin was a chauvinist pig.

This state of affairs is dreadfully frustrating to egalitarians but there is no great mystery about it. We need our millionaires as the British need the royal family. They have utility. They make us laugh. They make us cheer. They fill up the empty times.

I refer not to Rockefellers or anonymous coupon clippers in Boston or Palm Springs but to the millionaires we know -- J.R., Willie Nelson, Bob Hope, the Beatles, Johnny Carson, Moses Malone, Chris Lloyd, Sugar Ray or Howard Cosell. We give them fortunes because without them life would be damnably dull.

Even the sex lives of millionaires bewitch and entertain us as Alfred Bloomingdale and the Palm Beach Pulitzers have demonstrated of late. No rational politician will rail against them as "malefactors of great wealth." We will not confiscate their automobiles nor seize their estates for the homeless. They make tycoonhood lovable and necessary.

This cheerful tolerance extends to our political life. We routinely choose people of great wealth to govern us. Eight of our last 10 presidents have been millionaires. Congress and statehouses are heavily populated with them. Washington is so accustomed to wealth in its midst that the election of a house painter to Congress a few years back was a source of amusement. We do not find it paradoxical that Kennedy pictures are icons in houses of the poor.

Another factor in the somnolence of the "soak the rich" movement has been the elevation of the American intellectual class to economic respectability if not full-fledged tycoonhood. The communications industry which puts pictures of the world in our heads has itself grown rich. The angry, impoverished scribblers and pamphleteers of an earlier time have been supplanted by prosperous columnists and commentators with life styles far beyond the masses they instruct. Millionaires read the news to us from tony television studios in Manhattan. Books create instant fortunes. Leading college professors and leading trade unionists require the services of financial advisers.

Beyond that, and more importantly, our expectations of wealth and our perceptions of it have undergone a fundamental change. The point was illustrated in Britain recently. The Labor Party proposed a special tax on everyone with net assets in excess of $300,000. The tax would have affected only a handful of people -- about 1 percent. But an opinion poll on the issue found overwhelming opposition; 68 percent were opposed.

The Sunday Times concluded from the poll that "in Britain today you have to be really well endowed before people even think that you are rich. A clear majority of our sample -- 58 percent -- believe that someone owning ($300,000) is not 'very rich'. An eccentric 5 percent believe that someone with more than ($2 million) is only 'fairly rich'. And someone with ($20,000) is regarded as 'fairly' or 'very' poor by 44 percent of our sample." The explanation for these perceptions, said The Times, is that "wealth is no longer the preserve of a privileged elite." A majority of Britons in the sample reported net worths between ($20,000 and $100,000), based largely on home ownership.

That is, of course, true to an even greater extent in the United States. We are a nation of property owners for whom a $100,000 home, a boat or a camper and an All-Savers Certificate are fairly modest assets. Furthermore, the statistical, if not the real line, between rich and non-rich is rather thin. To join the top 5 percent of income-earners in America -- that is, to be "rich" -- one needs an after- tax income of $37,500; to be in the top 1 percent requires after-tax income of $52,500. That is one of the problems with the "soak the rich" argument. At what level does the soaking start?

We have been able to duck the whole issue since World War II because the American pie -- the national wealth -- has expanded sufficiently to give larger slices to rich and poor alike. But if, as Lester Thurow and other economists are beginning to argue, we are entering an era in which the pie no longer grows, we will see a tug of war not merely between interest groups but between classes as well. When and if that day comes, "soak the rich" and "share the wealth" platforms will gain respectability. But until that time, forget it.

My own million is only a lottery ticket away. When I hit the big one I want to keep it, guilt-free.