The moral loftiness of those who talk about the Decline of the West makes me feel personally responsible. And while part of me shares their forboding about cataclysms to come, the other part asks: what are you doing about it? To which I am obliged to reply: not much. For while I go to church, exercise and try to read the Republic once each year, that's only personal. And when it comes to public affairs, I seem to be, like most everybody else, in a state of catatonia.

I have resolved, in the '80s, to end all that; to forswear all vague generalizations, especially those having to do with the Decline of the West, and to stick to practical advice. For, as the Catholic Church learned long ago in the catacombs, moral decline can be halted only by action. Or as Cato once said, "We must all begin with our backs to the wall." But to do that, we must find what shoved us there in the first place. That's the catch.

Merely to assert that our prime difficulty is bad leadership is to put the tail before the nose. For this is America, not Katmandu. We elect our own leaders; and so if they're stupid, incompetent or crazed, it's because the electorate is likewise. And bad voters are as responsible as bad leaders for bringing on the recent catalog of catastrophe.

Let's no longer cater to sentiment, then, but say it straightout: not everyone should vote. For democracy, like fur, can be stretched only so far. And in America, though we rarely admit it, such a stretching has already taken place. There are great numbers of people who go to the polls every couple of years who are not in their right minds.

But isn't it time to halt those catabolic processes the Decline-of-the-West people keep talking about? And shouldn't we admit once and for all that there are voters who're so far out as to be incapable of judging anything at all? And isn't it time to remove from them the burden of voting until they are compos mentis again?

We all know the answer to that, and the only thing holding up these reforms has been the question: who? Or maybe it ought to be: how? How to identify the walking crazy, the secretly berserk, who have somehow managed to avoid institutionalization, and are to be seen every other November headed toward the ballot box?

Of course, we'll not be able to identify them all. And some of them -- for instance, the cult in Kansas City that bites the heads off live chickens, the trombone-playing nudists in Richmond who each spring paint themselves green and march down Broad Street -- are too few to make much difference. What's needed, obviously, is to identify a large group of people who are so manifestly out of their trees that not even the ACLU would venture to defend them. And we all know who these people are.

Therefore, it is time to disenfranchise everybody who either (a) owns a cat or (b) looks as if he might like to.

This has nothing to do with right and wrong. We all know it's wrong. The question is whether it is sane -- voluntarily to live with a gelid-eyed, feather-mouthed, mincing little rug of a carnivore that is vain, cold, stealthy, mean and smelly. Disenfranchisement, then, is the only rational remedy, because who wants the leader of the West to be chosen by some fool who, being able to afford the price of a sardine, stands on his back porch in the cold of the winter, calling "Pussy, pussy, pussy"? Never mind the comparison with dogs. wNever mind the cat in Cincinnati who was rumored to have fetched a newspaper once. Because all of us, especially those who suffer from catarrh, are able to make valid inferences about the sanity of people who own cats.

The Decline of the West, as any careful historian will admit, actually began with the New York Cat Show of 1895, when what had been private insanity began to be organized and the rest of the country chose to look the other way. That was the catalyst, and now there are cat-fancier clubs all over the country; tens of millions of cat-owners who keep the cat-litter trays inside their houses.

Moreover, there is a particular reason they keep cats in the first place. They like to watch them eat songbirds. They like to watch them eat mice, too. If we don't watch it, one day our national anthem will be a catchy tune like this one by B. Kliban: Love to eat them Mousies, Mousies what I love to eat. Bite they little heads off . . . Nibble on they tiny feet.

Hopefully, disenfranchisement could bring some cat owners to their senses, and a few might even be rehabilitated. They could be issued burlap bags and encouraged to sneak out in the dark of the moon and gather up a whole gang of them to take for a midnight swim at Great Falls. After donating $1,000 to the Audubon Society, they could be allowed to vote again. And in the meantime, our quality of leadership would have improved, chipmunks would abound, and the West, if still declining, would be far less disgusting. Not one meow would be heard throughout the land. And those of us who are sane would like it a lot better that way.