YOU MIGHT THINK that hard times produce hard drinkers. Cowboy movies as well as history books attest that in frontier days, when life was hard and survival a difficult goal, there was much bellying up to the bar. Carry Nation, wielding her ax in one saloon after another, was fighting a cultural phenomenon that made it common for breadwinners to blow the family resources on booze when the drab and brutal proletarian life of 19th-century America got to be too much for them. We had Prohibition when the Great Depression started, but once that was lifted in 1933, alcoholic consumption increased steadily right through World War II. Only in the peaceful and prosperous early post-war years did drinking decline.

Here we are in the midst of the worst recession since the '30s. Over 10 percent of the population is unemployed, and perhaps at least another 40 percent is more or less uneasy. But in the first half of this year, liquor sales were off by a surprising 6.6 percent in the continuation of a trend that began in 1970. In that year, consumption of spirits of all kinds peaked at 245 million gallons. Last year, it was 205 million gallons and in the first half of this year only 88 million gallons. Some of the loss has been to the benefit of the wine industry -- wine has outsold liquor since 1980 -- but even the Chablis and hearty Burgundy market is off this year.

Are people staying out of liquor stores because they don't have the money to buy? Surely that's true of some. But it didn't happen in the 1930s when cash was short. More likely, our life styles have changed. Some now deal with stress by popping a pill instead of mixing a martini. Others, concerned about health and fitness, wouldn't think of doing either. A number of young people, like their Victorian forebears, are reacting against excesses of the recent past by ordering Perrier instead of Pilsener.

But the chief reason for self-control, more than likely, is the desire to remain physically attractive. In Grandma's day, a 60-year-old woman was allowed an extra 30 or 40 pounds and was expected to wear black dresses and lace-up oxfords with Cuban heels. Today, every 60-year-old woman wants to look like Nancy Reagan and a lot of 60-year-old men want to continue running in marathons. These are fine goals -- cheaper, too.