New York City's comptroller, Harrison Goldin, recently offered one of those bright ideas for which the Big Apple is renowned. He suggests that the city "include the gay community in the national promotion of New York City as a tourist attraction."

Goldin didn't mean, he added, that gays should be treated as freaks for the hicks to come in and gawk at. He meant that New York's homosexual might draw in other homosexuals from around the nation.

To put it delicately, this has never been a problem. Nobody can recall when New York was last hit by a gay shortage. Probably around the last time the swallows failed to show up at Capistrano. Still, Goldin wanted to go the extra mile to highlight the city's "tolerance of diverse groups."

A few weeks later, Mayor Edward Koch established sharp limits on that famous tolerance. With solemn fanfare, Koch went on the radio to read aloud the names and addresses of 10 men who had been arrested for propositioning police women posing as prostitutes. The "John hour" caused lots of giggles, but it may also have undercut another of the city's ancient tourist attractions.

Even beyond that, it set us moral philosophers to reflecting. In New York, the line between vice and virtue takes some funny zigs and zags. This is not a community dreamed up by Thornton Wilder.

Aren't the Johns too, in their way, partaking of the city's rich diversity?

Shouldn't they be accorded some of that tolerance, instead of being held up to public disgrace? What gives?

What gives is politics. The gay have a lobby. The Johns don't. We live in an age of might be called moral special interests, and not enough attention is paid to how they operate. In some places homosexuality has nosed out motherhood as a sacred topic; in others the same is true of abortion, which many feel is on the whole preferable to motherhood. How have traditonal values gotten reversed?

The process usually has three phases: (1) The "reformers" demand exceptions to the old rule. 2) They attack the old rule itself. 3) They demand the subsitution of their own rule. Let us expand this scenario in more detail.

Phase 1 is the phase of bathos. The old rule -- against homosexuality or abortion, say -- is not directly attacked, but its application is criticized as too rigid. We are told that homosexuality is not a vice but a psychological problem that it would be cruel to punish. Or that abortion is a cruel necessity in hard cases, like those of rape and incest.

Phase 2 is the phase of aggressive skepticism. Once we are used to making exceptions -- which, by the way, proliferate wildly -- we are told not to pass judgement at all. The "hard case" criteria fade away, as do all objective criteria. we are instructed that homosexuality is a matter of sheer personal preferences, abortion a matter of individual conscience.

Phase 3 is the phase of triumph. The original value is inverted: homosexuality and abortion became absolute rights. What began as an exception -- a problem or a necessary evil -- emerges as positively desirable, something we should actually encourage and maximize. Public officials proclaim Gay Pride Week and call for publicly funded abortions. The good of these things becomes "objective," the consciences of those who disagree become "subjective."

The second phase is the crucial one. Everything hinges on the discrediting of a single arbitrarily selected value, to allow the pet values of others free rein. Curiously, these pet values are never submitted to the same debunking process, though they easily could be. Liberals say, "I'm not pro-abortion; I'm pro-choice." It never occures to them that someone else might say, "I'm not pro-racism; I'm pro-choice," and argue, in good ACLU style, for expanded First Amendment rights of free conscience and free association to prohibit forced integration, busing and the like. Who says racism is "bad," anyway? Isn't this too a matter for personal preferences and individual conscience? As long as I don't prevent you from associating with other races, why should you have the power to force me?

Anyone can play the debunking game, yet so far only the liberals have mastered it. But it's a good rule of thumb that the fellow who complains about people "imposing their values on others" is getting ready to impose his own.