Let's try it several different ways. You are a medical patient being told by your doctor that you require an extremely painful and highly risky operation. You are a soldier being ordered into battle by your unit commander. You are a pensioner being advised by your banker on the safest and most productive way to invest your modest funds. The doctor, the officer and the banker all expect you to yield to their professional authority and expert judgment. But each of them has arrived at his final recommendation or order by a visible process very similar to that which we have witnessed in the federal government over the past several weeks: Bam! Splat! Crash! Am not! Are too! Am not! Are too! and so forth. What do you do? You know what you do. You flee the hospital trailing bed sheets and plastic tubes, you desert the army unit, you take your nest egg and run.

Why do the people in Washington suppose it is going to be any different when, at the end of the protracted indignity and chaos of this autumn, they finally come up with a deficit reduction plan? Well, partly no doubt, because the American public can't run: taxes are taxes and program cuts are program cuts and the law, once it has finally been enacted, is the law. But in one very important sense, after the program has been passed, people's response is going to be like that of the hypothetical folks I have sketched above. However much relief is expressed at the conclusion of the government's wrangling, and whatever crowing about this guy's victory and that guy's defeat ensues, among the public there is going to be minimum respect for the agreement reached and minimum confidence in its wisdom or rightness. That is because everyone saw too much. The creators of the pending legislation, both those in Congress and those in the executive branch, were observed not just to have feet of clay but to be pretty much clay all over.

I bring this up at a moment when you can feel the beginnings of a new consensus, which will be, roughly, that all's well that ends well and that the complaints about procedure were much ado about nothing. The anarchy of September and October will perhaps even be romanticized as the rough and tumble of a robust society, the necessary, if not downright healthy, eye-gouging and calf-biting of good old American democracy at work. The end (which probably won't be all that hot either) will be pronounced definitely to have justified the means, or at least to have sort of excused them. But I think the critics and worrywarts were right the first time. There is a terrific cost to this kind of out-of-control performance. It is paid in the coin of government credibility.

We are all so accustomed to thinking of the credibility problems of government in terms of prominent officials being caught out in baldfaced lies or little lesser campaign embroideries that we miss the more fundamental issue. This is the loss -- or diminution, anyway -- of their general, overall credibility as leaders who deserve respect, whose advice carries a presumption of seriousness, logic and good faith. It is true that, even in good times, Americans are always of somewhat mixed mind about this. We are anti-authority and deflators of official status by nature. There is a part of us that never accepts the proposition that leaders know any more than we do and which likes nothing more than to demonstrate that they are all scoundrels and ninnies and that we wouldn't dream of tipping our hat to them if we still wore hats.

But the other part of the mixed mind naturally wants to know that we are well and purposefully led. We have to trust our government in these fast-moving, complicated, nuclear-affected times. We can't ask for the papers, for the raw data on everything so we can make up our minds ourselves. There are steps they have to take; there is information they have to assimilate for us. And they need to be able to reassure us that we can trust them to do these things well. We don't want to look in on their deliberations, as has occurred in the past few weeks, and find them in the middle of an insane and seemingly unending adult pillow fight.

The fact that we did happen on such a scene of course owes something to the extension of democratic procedures in government -- this must be conceded. Sunshine laws, the demystification of our leaders and the collapse of the old ironclad hierarchic order on the Hill have all contributed to the effect. There was a time not so long ago when a president and a few congressional leaders could have gotten together and not only concocted a deal but enforced it. And there was a time, too, when what squabbling and resistance there was would have occurred behind closed doors. You would have known about it only when those who had tried to rebel lost their choice committee assignments the next time around. Not very many people, I think, are nostalgic for those tyrannical days. But I don't think that kind of arrangement is the only means by which we can assure a greater degree of decorum and order in our political affairs.

Even granting that circumstances these days contribute to the anarchic trends we have witnessed in government, it seems obvious that there was a lack of self-restraint and a measure of self-indulgence present in the last few weeks that had no justification or excuse. The horseplay, after all, was not taking place in a schoolyard or a locker room somewhere. It was taking place within a government that is at the moment asking Americans to trust it to make truly momentous, split-second decisions concerning war in the Persian Gulf; and it was taking place on a subject -- taxation and the level of service provided by government -- that requires the citizen to believe what was done was done for good reason and in good faith.

That is why the cartoon quality of the performance was so destructive. Yes, the Congress and the White House may yet arrive at a deal which is at least better than it would have been to do nothing. And yes, that will have been progress. But there will have been a tremendous hidden cost to government -- a cost in authority, trust and believability.