The total nuclear freeze is the Laffer Curve of arms control.

Hostility to both taxes and nuclear weapons is not only understandable--affection for either is more than a bit peculiar. But you want to watch out how you go about getting rid of either one.

There are two versions of the nuclear freeze: the total freeze now being placed on ballots and sweeping the small towns of New Hampshire and Vermont, and the somewhat differently worded freeze resolution recently introduced in Congress. Both pose serious problems, but the first is irremediable.

Remember the Laffer Curve? It was drawn, for the first and apparently the only time, on a restaurant napkin. How could there be anything wrong with an idea in economics that, for once, was so simple, so pure, so intelligible to you and me that it could be drawn on a napkin?

Cut taxes, the curve folks told us, and it will all work out--everything you're worried about. Fah, they said, to the nay-sayers with their quibbles about deficits, interest rates, monetary policy, time-lags and all those other details. If it looks like a tax and you see it standing around, cut it, and ask questions later. All you need to know is that you don't like taxes, I don't like taxes and the voters don't like taxes.

But as the implications of last summer's binge of enthusiasm for a world without taxes have crystallized in the winter's high interest rates and recession --for some, depression--the federal government's revenue base is metastasizing before our eyes. And the saddest thing of all is that there was an oppportunity to do something specific and constructive to improve investment and productivity--an opportunity that was lost when the tax cutters were diverted by their exuberance.

Now the spirit that brought you the current recession/depression, the Kellogg-Briand Pact to renounce war and similarly bold and successful initiatives of public policy is looking for new fields to conquer, and its gaze has fallen on arms control. Fueled by people's agony about the threat of nuclear war, a national campaign is under way to bring about a bilateral halt to testing, production and deployment of "all" nuclear weapons, missiles and delivery systems. (The congressional freeze proposal omits the word "all" and adds that "special attention" should be given to "destabilizing" weapons.)

Poor old arms control. Step by difficult step, its practitioners have tried over the years to do such things as check the proliferation of nuclear weapons and improve the stability of the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance. It's not easy. It requires at least a passing acquaintance with some of the relevant technical issues. It requires the will to be tough with our allies on such matters as their exports of fissionable material and technology that are making nuclear weapons available to the likes of Gen. Zia, Col. Quaddafi and Saddam Hussein. It requires exquisite timing and close coordination with defense planning. It requires verification. It requires tough negotiating. But from time to time it can accomplish something.

Too complicated, say the total freeze advocates. If it looks like a nuke, stop it.

Many proponents of a total freeze argue, first, that it would be more easily verifiable because of its all-encompassing scope, and some argue also that--if there are indeed problems with verifiability or any other particular aspect--it is unimportant. The main thing, the advocates say, is to make a statement--in George Wallace's famous phrase, "to send them a message."

Their first point is false, the second disingenuous.

Soviet compliance with many extremely important restrictions under a total freeze could simply not be verified without the sort of inspection measures to which they have continually objected. The major unanswered questions that now exist about Soviet compliance with unverifiable international agreements banning biological and toxin weapons do not fill prudent arms control advocates with enthusiasm for relying on Soviet pledges. A freeze concentrating on "destabilizing" systems--such as large, fixed, vulnerable ICBMs--might be far more verifiable, but it is hard to say if this is what the ambiguously worded congressional version suggests.

Further, you should not be able to dismiss the flaws of a specific proposal for government action that you have made by arguing that the language you yourself have chosen should be disregarded. And the provisions of the total nuclear freeze have a distinctly Laffer Curve flavor. As the freeze careens forward, it becomes clear that it, too, if implemented, would produce some inadvertent but highly unfortunate side effects.

A total freeze would, for example, comparatively strengthen Soviet efforts to put our strategic forces at risk and would halt any shift away from vulnerable and toward survivable strategic systems--a stabilizing shift that could be encouraged by the right combination of arms control and strategic programs. Under a total nuclear freeze, currently existing Soviet nuclear forces and unconstrained Soviet work on certain nonnuclear programs could, combined, steadily increase our strategic vulnerability. Unless modernized and equipped with cruise missiles, our bomber force would soon become vulnerable because of nonnuclear, and hence unconstrained, Soviet air defense improvements. Such a freeze would also make permanent the vulnerability of our existing ICBMs, leaving no paths by which we could shift to other basing methods in order to preserve their ability to deter. Such a freeze would prohibit us from countering the unconstrained, and substantial, Soviet efforts at anti-submarine warfare, since it would halt our construction of new quieter ballistic missile submarines as well as the longer- range missiles that are needed to enable them to patrol far from Soviet territory. And there is an added problem: if you agree to freeze something before persuading the Soviets to reduce, what do you use to encourage them to agree to reductions?

Like the tax cuts of last summer, a total nuclear freeze would supplant less dramatic but more workmanlike and potentially far more effective efforts-- for instance, using arms control to help create incentives to reduce reliance on destabilizing strategic systems and replace them with more survivable ones. Many traditional and strong supporters of arms control will continue to balk at the movement for a total freeze, although they sense the agony of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition and the specter of Armageddon as keenly as anyone. They wince as they see a noble instinct, the love of peace, beginning to be diverted into those full-page ads, petitions and ballot resolutions. They know that the coming peace marches of spring and summer will be followed by a long winter of increased nuclear instability if the total freeze advocates' views prevail.

No, don't you understand? say the total freeze supporters. You're trapped in a little world of quibbles and details. It's really all so simple. All you have to know is whether you are for nukes or against them. Here, I'll write the whole thing out for you. On my napkin.