Ten days in Sicily without an English-language newspaper is a great tonic, but the reentry problem for the junketing journalist is a serious one. The shift from the orange groves of Agrigento and the fresh octupus in seaside Syracuse to the grilled cheese sandwich and desultory budget debate in the Senate takes more than the 24 hours of airline travel involved.

Even after a few days back, it is hard to shake the memories of Greek temples overlooking the Mediterranean and Norman churches filled with rich Byzantine mosaics. And in the jet-lag hours of early morning musings, it is hard not to ask what message there may be for the United States in the experience of an island that has known every form of rule from republic to tyranny, under men from three continents, a dozen nations and countless faiths, in its 2,500 years of recorded history.

Self-evidently, the lesson is that natural riches, favorable siting, energetic and attractive people are not enough. Without stability, order and effective government, human life will be as Hobbes described it in a state of nature--solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Sicily is a human tragedy. Set at the crossroads of the trade routes, blessed with natural harbors, rich soil, a perfect climate for growing, abundant minerals and teeming fisheries, it is cursed with poverty, violence and almost every other form of social blight.

The source of its woe lies in its history and its politics. Often conquered, it has rarely been governed. Its people have learned to survive by their wiles, relying on cunning and courage and the power they can amass as individuals or families. The Mafia, for which the island is notorious, is just the most organized of crypto-governments in a culture where no government has attained legitimacy long enough to provide conditions for sustained economic growth.

The inclination of an American visitor is to say a smug thank you that history and geography have spared this country from being a perpetual battlefield and that the temper of our people has sustained the stable self-governing institutions the genius of the Founding Fathers created.

But a few days back in Washington serve as a humbling reminder that we are by no means immune from the tendency to "self-Sicilianization" that can erupt whenever civil government is systematically disparaged, widely distrusted and ultimately despised.

What are the symptoms of self-Sicilianization? One is governmental instability. Italy, which loosely administers Sicily, is on its 43rd government since World War II. The United States has its sixth president in 20 years, a turnover rate unprecedented in our history.

The natural tendency in such an epoch is to think only of today and not worry about tomorrow. Vital natural resources are squandered to meet demands of the moment, not saved for the future. Sicily has never recovered from the stripping of its forests centuries ago for construction of men-of-war. In our country today, policy favors the rapid exploitation of irreplaceable mineral and energy resources, in order to meet the demands of "national security."

In a nation undergoing self-Sicilianization, public investment is diverted from solid projects promising long- term economic benefits into showy structures, aimed at impressing or intimidating outsiders. In poverty- stricken Sciacca, a vast, modernistic theater stands unfinished and unused on the main street, an elaborate shell game. And here at home, serious people debate a vastly more expensive shell game--a plan to put mobile missiles somewhere where they may (or may not) be so well-protected they will scare the Russians into thinking twice.

In a Sicilian-style government, budgets are a sham and taxes are meant to be avoided. Real budgeting requires self-restraint, as lacking in today's Congress as in any Sicilian village. Taxes are a necessary payment for services only government can provide. But our government is bent on reducing taxes, in the face of massive, permanent deficits, and refuses to contemplate the consequences.

Finally, self-Sicilianization reaches the point that the government turns against itself and abandons responsibility for even its most basic tasks. When a presidential commission reported last week that the quality of American education has declined so drastically that "our very future as a nation and a people" is in jeopardy, no one disputed the conclusion.

But the president himself, ducking the challenge to lead the debate on the best public policy to meet this vital problem, said education is "a parental right and responsibility," which government has mistakenly usurped. His answer was another tax break: tuition tax credits to encourage individual families to purchase education for their children in a make-believe private market.

Endemic distrust of government-- civic cynicism--has blighted Sicily's hopes for centuries past. The same disease, encouraged by our own rulers, can just as easily blight our hopes for years to come.