A conservative, feeling puckish, once said he favored forced busing because it would weaken public education. His playful point -- that the conservative revival owes much to the liberal agenda -- pops into mind concerning "comparable worth."

According to that doctrine, workers in a job traditionally filled by women should receive pay equal to that for jobs of "comparable worth" that are traditionally filled by men. The "comparable worth" movement has recently received setbacks in its campaign to convince courts that "comparable worth" is mandated by existing civil rights statutes. This leaves many liberals depressed because courts are, for them, the arena of first choice.

Courts rather than democratic institutions have been hospitable to the liberal agenda recently. But some especially crusty conservatives regret the waning of the "comparable worth" idea, and some discerning liberals, having learned from their tribulations, regard "comparable worth" as a bullet to be dodged.

Conservatism has risen on steppingstones of liberal successes. Forced busing is one example. The court decisions forbidding prayer in public school and overturning 50 states' abortion laws are other large examples of liberal successes that made or energized millions of conservatives. And there have been myriad petty harassments of communities in the name of this or that civil right -- enjoining a father- son sports banquet here, fiddling with a Christmas creche there, overturning union seniority systems here and there.

Decades of conservative complaining about "big government" have encouraged the conclusion that the country's increased conservatism reflects dissatisfaction with the gross "size" of government as measured by government's share of GNP and as exemplified by the big social insurance entitlement programs. Conservatives, their intelligence numbed by their own rhetoric, came to the erroneous conclusion that the country was ready for large cuts in those large programs. Today's deficits are in part a monument to that misanalysis and the excessive confidence it encouraged concerning budget cutting.

The growth of government spending in recent decades has indeed been largely in the social insurance area. But it is not the "size" of government, gauged by such spending, that has been the principal conservatizing irritant to the country. Rather, the irritant has been the increased intrusiveness of government, an intrusiveness perceived as irrational, arrogant and bullying.

"Comparable worth" is a recipe for an explosion of intrusiveness. It is an idea that has bubbled up at an unpropitious moment. There is a back-to-basics movement concerning government: let the government master filling potholes and delivering the mail before it branches out into the arcane business of discerning, according to complex standards of its own devising, the "comparable worth" of, say, operating trucks and typewriters.

A certain kind of conservative might cotton to "comparable worth" because that idea is, in a sense, medieval. In those olden times, when society was much more static than now, economic life was often regulated, and suppressed, by the idea of a "just price" for particular commodities, as in an "intrinsic" value for salt. The divining of such values often was the business of divines. Today, fine-tuning the compensation equities of this complex society would be the business of government.

Perhaps it would be government's only business. Those conservatives whose goal it is to cause government to grind to a halt should promote "comparable worth." It would leave government with little energy for anything else, and would cause the already congested courts to congeal.

"Comparable worth" would detonate an expansion of government greater than that of the Great Society growth of 1965-66 and comparable to the early New Deal and the "war socialism" of 1917 and 1942. In the private sector it would produce a new multibillion-dollar consulting industry that would not actually make anything, but would render advice concerning "comparable worth." As always, the big winners would be lawyers.

Finally, another reason some conservatives welcome "comparable worth" is that it could replace the fading Equal Rights Amendment as a device for keeping liberal lobbies such as the National Organization for Women incandescent and noticeable. "Comparable worth" comes in the nick of time to give NOW and its restored president, Eleanor Smeal, a fresh banner.

"I am glad to see Eleanor back," said a senior Republican official who relishes the idea of weight in the Democratic Party's saddle. Smeal is promising to "raise hell" and protect America from "fascism" and make "comparable worth" the cause of the '80s.

So, two years hence, candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will be hauled on leashes before NOW to be Mau- Maued about any deviation from total devotion to NOW's catechism. That will help the country gauge the comparable worth of candidates.