There was Gen. Jaruzelski on television, looking like a skeleton and sporting his trademark dark glasses -- no one's idea of the compleat modern pol. Despite all, he was doing his wooden best at that classic ritual of democracy: waving at the cameras as he emerged from the voting booth.

Jaruzelski lost. In an apparent first for a communist country, the citizens of Poland were allowed to vote on the government's proposed austerity plan. In an even more amazing first, they rejected it. But there are ironies to be savored along with this triumph.

The austerity plan, featuring huge price increases on basic necessities, was actually part of a perestroika-style move toward free-market capitalism. There was a second referendum on something described as "the Polish model of deep democratization," which apparently meant shallow democratization. That one lost too.

The austerity and the economic reforms go together. To untangle an economy strangling on socialism, prices must find their own level. The hope, undoubtedly justified, is that after what the referendum described as "a difficult two- to three-year period of rapid change," free markets will do their stuff and everyone will be better off.

The austerity and the democratization go together too. Critics of the referendum, according to The Post, "contended that the balloting amounted to an attempt to make Poles feel obliged to accept price increases." Undoubtedly true. But legitimizing unpleasant social decisions by having the people decide for themselves isn't a trick. It's one of democracy's genuine strengths.

The Poles apparently did not think a bit of economic and political freedom was worth the sacrifice. Or is that unfair? Perhaps. The Polish standard of living is already the grimmest in Europe. The vote can also be seen as support for Solidarity, which opposed the referendum, and as an understandable, indeed inspiring, repudiation of the government. Surely, though, at least one factor is that after two generations, many Poles have grown -- if not comfortable -- at least settled in their shabby socialist cocoon and wearily fearful of venturing outside it. Some say that's just what the government intended to demonstrate.

But wait. By American standards, Jaruzelski's defeat was actually a landslide victory. Under Polish election law, a proposal must carry a majority of eligible voters, not just those who vote. Ordinarily, as in most communist countries, this is no problem. In this case, however, only about two-thirds turned out, and only about two-thirds voted yes. Thus the referendum lost, 56 percent to 44.

By contrast, in the 1984 American presidential election, 53 percent turned out, and 59 percent voted for President Reagan, giving him 31 percent of the electorate. This was interpreted as a landslide endorsement and a "mandate" for a variety of conservative policies, many of which were never mentioned during the campaign. In 1986 only 37 percent of the electorate voted. By Polish standards the entire government has been rejected by the voters.

This is not a sermon about voter turnout. The freedom to be complacent and apathetic is an important part of the American model of deep democratization, which runs a hell of a lot deeper than the Polish model. Nevertheless, it's interesting to contemplate what would happen if Americans were able to vote on a dose of economic reality -- two or three years of "difficult change" leading to greater prosperity in the long run. Something like that, on a much more modest level, is exactly what we need and exactly what our own democracy seems unable to offer.

There isn't much mystery about the fate of such a referendum. Indeed, the same day's paper that reported the Polish results also reported a new New York Times/CBS News poll that spells this out all too clearly. Americans believe by almost 4 to 1 that the government should "guarantee medical care for all people." By almost 3 to 1 we believe that the government should "see to it that everyone who wants a job has a job." By almost 2 to 1 we think the government should provide day care for children. Yet by almost 2 to 1 we are unwilling to pay more federal taxes for all these fine things, unwilling to see cuts in social programs and (by more than 3 to 1) unwilling to limit cost-of-living allowances for Social Security. And -- oh, yes -- by more than 5 to 1 we favor a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

Imagine the response if Americans were told that a sensible plan for economic recovery would require a tripling of heating oil prices and a more than doubling of prices for meat, bread and milk. Forty-four percent of the voters would be more likely to rise up and overthrow the government than to support such a proposal. There is hardly a politician out there who dares to propose a 10 percent increase in the price of gasoline.

By the standards of Americans, then, the citizens of Poland are paragons of democratic capitalist fortitude. Our cocoon is a lot more comfortable, and no one is even attempting to entice us out of it.