I have been upbraided by a friend of hard critical intelligence. Years ago, in a public exchange with Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, I pronounced that ''I would sooner be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the faculty of Harvard.'' But on another occasion, I scoffed at the idea of the universal franchise.
Asked to be more specific, I replied in one interview that a recent finding by the Gallup organization revealed (this was 20 years ago) that 20 percent of the American people didn't know what the United Nations was. The question now raised is: How can anyone take the two positions simultaneously, the first populist, the second elitist?
I do not find the apparent paradox self-destructive. If you take the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory, you might find that 20 percent of them (400) had never heard of the United Nations. But subtract those 400 votes from the 2,000 and it doesn't follow that a vote on a public issue would result in a different verdict.
This would not be so if the plebiscite were directly on the matter of the United Nations. If you asked the question, ''Do you believe in withdrawing from the United Nations?'' you would not get a rational answer from those Bostonians who did not know what the United Nations was.
On the other hand, among academics there is a syndrome, identifiable even if it isn't easy to describe. I remember the straw poll taken in Princeton some years ago which revealed that the faculty was divided as among McGovern (George), Nixon (Richard) and Gregory (Dick) for president. My recollection may be slightly inexact. But the poll came out approximately 65 McGovern, 8 Nixon, and 8 Gregory.
This may be dismissed as academic humor, in which case the obvious commentary is that one would be uneasy being governed by such folk as are given to academic humor. But one readily sees that 20 percent anomalies subtracted from both bodies leave you safer with the telephone directory than with the faculty directory. Raw ignorance, provided it is blended with something less than that, is less dangerous than raw hubris, all but unadulterated.
Still, you get isolated exposures to raw ignorance that are truly unsettling. In the recent trial in which Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald sued author Joseph McGinniss, one saw such ignorance actively at work. MacDonald is the convicted killer (of one pregnant wife, two daughters), McGinniss the author of ''Fatal Vision,'' an intimate account of the murders. The lawsuit was initiated by the killer, who claimed that the author had defrauded him by writing an unsympathetic book, citing a contract that, he claimed, had been violated.
One juror reacted violently to the argument that you cannot expect an author to write something he knows on investigation not to be true: What rights should an author have that other, plain folk do not have? The answer, of course, is those rights distinctive to authorship, even as a policeman should have rights distinctive to police work and a house painter rights distinctive to house painting. She wanted to award the killer ''millions of dollars'' -- an inflationary wish to begin with, since the author does not dispose of millions of dollars.
The lady, by the way, when pressed, admitted that she had not read a book since she had graduated from high school. People who do not read books are less likely to be concerned about the rights of authors than people who do read books.
So the point is to deprive ignorance of special, critical leverage. And that is a continuing problem for a democracy that takes pride in itself.