Shortly after the Inauguration, Ronald Reagan met with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, in private. He said: some people are going to be surprised when they see that federal spending increases every year of my presidency.

Reagan's aim in 1981 was almost the same as that of the four persons (still the most conservative quartet in the history of modern American government--Gerald Ford, Alan Greenspan, William Simon, Arthur Burns) who had been setting policy five years earlier. Their aim was to slow the rate of growth of the public sector relative to the private sector. Reagan's aim, put precisely, is to slow the rate of growth of the nondefense public sector relative to the private sector.

Now comes a liberal, Prof. Samuel Beer (emeritus at Harvard, currently teaching at Boston College) to pronounce Reagan a "New Deal Conservative." Writing in Transaction magazine, Beer recalls a definition ("A conservative is a person who was a liberal when young and has not changed his mind") and says that the key to understanding Reagan may be in understanding the essential difference between FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society.

The New Deal was launched at about the time America became a predominantly urban and industrial nation, and during an especially brutal business cycle. The New Deal aimed to alleviate deprivation--assumed to be temporary deprivation--produced by large but correctable events. The New Deal agenda was not complex: full employment and social insurance.

The Great Society was born in the midst of a boom. Its focus was intractable poverty amid sustained economic growth. This was diagnosed to be deprivation with deep cultural roots, a diagnosis made with the thumping confidence characteristic of the social sciences in the 1960s. So the Great Society, more than the New Deal, aimed to do delicate, problematic things, like impart skills and alter motivations. This involved heavy emphasis on bureaucratic expertise (policy roles for social scientists) and public spending, especially federal aid to states and localities.

Social Security--an insurance rather than a services strategy of social amelioration--typified the New Deal. Federal aid (and accompanying regulations) typified the Great Society. The fact that Reagan's budget-cutting was directed first and hardest against federal aid to states and localities prompts Beer to describe Reagan as a New Deal Conservative who is philosophically unsympathetic only to the Great Society overlay.

But Beer may be inferring principle where convenience is a better explanation. Rochelle Stanfield of the National Journal notes that federal aid to states and localities is about half the so-called controllable portion of federal spending, and its constituencies are diffuse.

More than one-fourth ($234 billion) of the $848.5 billion Reagan proposes to spend in fiscal 1984 is for transfers between generations--to the elderly (in pensions and medical care, primarily). Reagan's 1984 budget contains half-a-trillion dollars for nondefense spending --exclusive of interest payments. Measured in constant dollars, this is down just 4 percent from the 1981 peak and is up 95 percent over fiscal 1970, when the Great Society was fully in place.

That is, Reagan is spending almost twice as much, in real terms, on domestic spending as LBJ did. David Stockman notes that of the half-trillion dollars, $424 billion is for transfer payments and social programs. "Everything else, from the FBI to farm subsidies to national parks, etc., only costs $75 billion." For 1984, "safety net" programs for low-income persons are 85 percent of 1981 levels and two and a half times the level--adjusted for inflation--in 1970.

Reagan's individualism is, as Beer says, both a theory of economic progress and a social ethic. But whatever his private views are about what an ideal society might be, were we starting fresh in Eden, I am increasingly convinced of this:

His budget-cutting is driven almost not at all by ideological animus against the form of government Democrats have largely built and Republicans such as Nixon and Ford have equably administered. Rather, the budget-cutting is driven by calculations--technical, not moral, judgments--necessary to restore economic growth while rearming. To the extent that rapid growth and rearmament are compatible with the post-FDR and post-LBJ government he inherited, to that extent Reagan is a Welfare State Conservative.

Surprised? How can a conservative be anything else? Conservative, as distinct from reactionary, politics values continuity and abhors radical ruptures with national patterns of action spanning 50 years.