There comes a time in childhood when you realize how the world really works. It is when you're about to be punished and a parent says, "This hurts me more than it hurts you." Noththat.

Now we have the latest variation on this theme and it comes from the Reagan administration. After the president proposed a 5 percent pay reduction for all federal workers, the Cabinet agreed to go even further: It would take a 10 percent cut. Talk about hurt!

Not to be outdone, House Minority Leader Bob Michel and Senate Majority Leader Robo wonderful it ought to be extended to Congress. And then President Reagan Andy Hardyishly suggested an even better idea. He, too, would take a pay cut. Golly! There goes New Year's Eve in Palm Springs.

This means that, among those who will now join janitors and secretaries and clerks in the ranks of the suffering, will be Donald Regan, the former chairman of Merrill Lynch; Cap Weinberger and George Shultz, both former Bechtel executives; and, of course, George Bush, who during the campaign forgot that his father was a millionaire and declared himself a self-made man.

The list of the new poor will include numerous millionaires in Congress, most of whom will have no compunction about imposing the new austerity on their less wealthy colleagues. The latter will, of course, suffer silently. In Washington, hypocrisy is just another name for the sword: you live by it; you can die by it.

Even for politicians at budget time, the Dole-Michel-Reagan pay cut proposal is epic political nonsense. It's symbolic of how showmanship and symbolism now pass for substance in Washington. The idea is to appear fair, as if fairness means treating rich and poor the same. When you compare the wealth of a man such as Donald Regan with that of a clerk who's supporting a family on a civil servant's paycheck, the point becomes pretty obvious. But take a look at the rest of what the president is proposing -- the budget freeze. This, too, is unfairness disguised as fairness.

The idea of an across-the-board freeze is to create something like a fiscal Battle of Britain atmosphere: we are all in this together and who knows where the bombs will land. But we know precisely where the bombs will land. They will land on the food stamp program, Head Start, low-income fuel aid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, rent subsidies, child nutrition programs, black lung benefits and scores of other programs whose recipients are the poor or the handicapped.

There are, though, no bombs in the president's program targeted at most of the middle class or any of the rich. To save them all a tax increase (and to satisfy an ideological compulsion to trash the federal government), programs are either being cut or frozen or, in some cases, eliminated.

Among them are some that ought to be junked and others that should be reduced. But to suggest that it is fair to take the good and the bad, the essential and the frivolous, and cut them all is an abdication of responsibility. It's the president's job to decide what's worth keeping and what's not and to find ways to pay for what's important.

The sort of fairness the Reagan administration proposes with its budget freeze and pay reduction proposals is precisely what Anatole France had in mind when he said, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread." Oh, Anatole, you've never been to Washington. In the name of fairness, the bridge program was cut.