"It's no mere coincidence," declared President Reagan shortly before his electoral triumph, "that the most blighted areas of the country -- places of desperation -- are areas that have been strongholds of the other party for many years." When pressed at the time for further explanation of this intriguing outburst, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said he would "leave that at the other end of a 10-foot pole."

Why was Speakes so squeamish? The statement, after all, is a perfectly clear and consistent expression of the president's views on what government is for and who it is meant to serve. As Reagan and, apparently, most of the electorate see it, people and localities that are in trouble have no one but themselves to blame. To the extent that a political party tries to use government programs to help them out, it only makes things worse: "Their (the Democrats') policies are tax, tax, spend, spend, and no friend to those who want to improve their well-being." If government would just go away and let the private market have its way, the needy would be blessed with "not pity, but opportunity; not handouts, but jobs."

This is an appealing thought -- the more so since it relieves the better-off of any obligation to the less fortunate. Unfortunately, as the Catholic bishops' pointed out last week in their draft pastoral letter on the economy, there is no guarantee -- or even any experience that suggests -- that the unfettered pursuit of self- interest by the most able will ensure a minimum level of security for the most vulnerable.

Free enterprise is surely a remarkable wealth-generating machine. But without government intervention, that wealth can come at the expense of much suffering among people who labor in mines, factories or shops, or whose skills are no longer needed by the economy. That suffering is a great deal less than it used to be before child labor laws, minimum wages, unemployment insurance, Social Security and welfare were enacted. But, as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago observes, the bishops deal firsthand with the poverty and despair that remains.

Despite the strong economic recovery, these conditions have gotten worse in recent years in many areas. Bernardin reports that one of his bishops, from an area in which several factories have closed, recently came to him in tears over the suffering he was seeing and the little that he could do to relieve it. That's why the cardinal expects little disagreement among the bishops over the pastoral letter, despite public controversy.

By renewing their support for interventions in the marketplace -- everything from floors under wages and welfare and a greater say for workers in management decisions to the direct creation of public jobs -- the bishops know that they are swimming directly against the political tide. But that is not an unfamiliar position for a centuries-old church. Such flouters of convention are the bishops that they have even suggested "a moratorium on rhetoric about 'welfare cheats.'

Nor are the bishops unaware of the built-in tension between redistributing income for the benefit of the poor and amassing capital to fuel economic growth. That's a conflict the Catholic Church has had to deal with internally over the centuries: how to justify the church's own accumulation of wealth while Christ's injunction to care for the poor is still so far from fulfilled.

Recognizing this tension, the bishops suggest that, to the extent possible, the poor should be helped through the job market rather than by direct government aid. The idea of helping people to help themselves appeals strongly to people at every income level, including the poor. Job-related help can encourage independence, confer a sense of dignity and provide useful goods and services. But many people simply can't be helped in this way, and the bishops sensibly recognize that the less popular way of redistributing income -- direct welfare aid for the poor -- needs improvement too.

There are clear limits on both the amount of additional redistribution and the choice of methods that a particular society will tolerate at any point in its history. But that does not mean that there is a built-in inconsistency between strong economic growth and a far more equal distribution of income than this country has. Most of the advanced countries of Western Europe as well as Japan have more nearly equal distributions of earnings and other income and much larger social welfare programs. Yet, as Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless points out in a new study, economic growth in these countries has generally outpaced growth in the United States over the last two decades.

Too generous a package of social guarantees can impede needed adjustment to external shocks, such as the big oil price hikes of the 1970s, or to heightened foreign competition. That seems to be happening now in Western Europe. But in judging whether the Europeans have made a bad choice, it's important to remember that it is not irrational for a society to decide to sacrifice some additional material goods for the no less real benefits of increased personal security or societal fairness.

That's why, not all that many years ago, this and other progressive countries of the industrialized world strengthened the role of government in the economic sphere. The thought was that placing some restraints on the concentration of wealth would ultimately improve the well-being of the whole society. This has certainly been demonstrated in this country, where the development of a well-paid, well-educated middle class has become the engine of growth for a consumer-led economy.

Now, however, President Reagan has encouraged that same middle class to forget about the helping hand that government gave to its education and development and to turn its back on those still left behind. Those "places of desperation" don't, after all, fit into the soft-focus, picket-fenced picture of America the president sees. Stick with me, he's say- ing, and I'll put you in Fat City. People in Fat City don't vote Democratic. That's no coincidence.

Nor is it any coincidence that the bishops have chosen this time to remind their increasingly affluent flock that their religion demands more from them than the pleasant pursuit of self-interest.