Unfortunately, the Reagan administration has backed down on a truly splendid plan to reduce unemployment. The Thanksgiving Day initiative, as we know, did not propose to give jobs to the jobless -- that, obviously, would be too "simplistic," a domestic version of the lamentable nuclear freeze.

Instead, the president's prized counsel, Edwin Meese III, made the sensible suggestion that the unemployed be taxed.

Alas, the usual bleeding hearts and partisan Democrats immediately rushed forward, blood pounding in their temples, to say the usual, predictable, hysterical things about slander, heartlessness, outrage and all that rot.

The president decided not to stay the course with his new approach, which had about it something of Jonathan Swift's solution to the Irish problem, his "Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Their Country." It was direct, practical, forthright. Make the victims pay for their bad luck. What made the softheaded opposition to the scheme so hypocritical was the recurring theme that it was ill-timed for Thanksgiving. Actually, it was entirely in the spirit of the inventors of the holiday, the stern Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

If there was one thing the Pilgrim Fathers could not abide it was sloth. The idea of paying people who were not working would have been abhorrent to them. Taxing them would not be going nearly far enough. Flogging would be more like it. And branding -- a large "U" on the hand after, say, two months of idleness; on the forehead after six.

The pilgrims would have known how to "make unemployment less attractive," as the thought was memorably expressed by Larry Speakes, the president's acting deputy press secretary.

In short, the idea is as appropriate to Thanksgiving as the turkey itself. And it is a shame that the president was bullied into disavowing it.

Although Reagan's lifestyle is hedonistic, his philosophy is not. Like the Puritans, he believes that people who are unfortunate deserve to be. The notion was to be expounded later by such eminent Calvinist divines as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, who were to make living so much fun in the colonies.

They held to the doctrine of "predestination," which meant that long before you got here, your salvation was predetermined. It was easy to tell who was going to heaven and who was not. Material prosperity was a sure sign of the favor of the Lord. It made life quite restful -- no crocodile tears over the damned down and outs.

There was no beating about the bush in those days, and Meese is in that mold. To some, he may appear a blunt instrument, but he speaks with the full confidence of a man who knows he represents his master. He stirred up considerable fuss a while back when he called the American Civil Liberties Union part of a band he described as "a criminals' lobby."

He is one who does not reel and blanch at the thought of nuclear war. Earlier this year he referred to it as "something that may not be desirable."

He was a natural to blow the whistle on the 11.5 million jobless, whom he views primarily not as humans and victims but as economic "lagging indicators" who persist in embarrassing Ronald Reagan. With flagrant disregard for Reagan's supply-side theology, with no concern whatever for the recovery he keeps promising, they left their jobs for the greener pastures of the unemployment line.

Their selfishness is truly a punishable offense. You read a lot and hear a lot about people, particularly in the North, who pack up their families and travel south looking for work and often end up living in their cars. They speak of waking up every morning with the feeling of a boulder resting on their hearts. But Meese and Reagan are not taken in by these sob stories.

The president has ofttimes mentioned the many help-wanted ads in the Sunday New York Times. This week's edition bears him out. Temple University, for instance, needs a head football coach; the White Plains Hospital Medical Center is looking for two respiratory therapists. And yet you will hear unemployed auto workers whining that they have stopped looking, because there is no work to be had.

As Meese said, when he was asked to explain further his option to the reporters in Santa Barbara, "When unemployment benefits end, most people find jobs very quickly after that."

But when the president came back from a canter through his mountain acres, the excellent plan had been dropped. It is a shame.

And it is no wonder that so many of his conservative followers wonder sometimes if Ronald Reagan's heart is really in the right place.