All you need to do to understand one major effect of federal deficits is to ask yourself what was the last significant legislative proposal designed to improve public education, feed hungry Americans, help poor people out of their poverty -- indeed, to alleviate any serious social problem.

To ask the question is to be reminded of the extent to which the debate over social policy has been transformed. We long ago stopped asking which programs ought to be enacted and turned our attention to the more doleful question of what might be salvaged from the existing programs.

Passage of the deficit reduction bill will transform the question even further. Instead of debating the question of which federal programs can survive budgetary ax, we may have to look for private-sector substitutes as a way of attacking social problems.

An example of that transformation is contained in a paper on legal services done by Frederic R. Kellogg for the Ripon Society, a liberal Republican research and policy group.

Kellogg embraces the implication of the law that created the Legal Services Corporation: that the ideal of a government of laws requires equal access to justice. Until now, that has been taken to mean federal funding of legal services for people who couldn't afford to purchase them. Even so, the LSC has been operating on a budget of some $300 million a year -- enough to raise serious concerns among those worried about federal deficits but only enough to provide about $9 a year in legal services for each poor person.

Even that piddling outlay has been under attack by the ascendant conservatives. For instance, the influential Heritage Foundation charged four years ago that the LSC is "so basically flawed that it is beyond reform sufficient to justify its continuation," and concluded that the "only real option" is its demise.

With the passage of the Gramm-Rudman- Hollings measure, the prospects of federally funded legal help for the poor have gone from dismal to virtually nonexistent. What can be done? Kellogg offers one hopeful answer: Privatization.

"To the greatest degree consistent with maintaining -- if not actually increasing -- the level of delivery of services to the poor, the LSC should increasingly devote its scarce federal resources to support, incentives, and membership activities. Its long-term goal should be to induce the legal profession, not the government, to institute an acceptable standard of equal access to justice, and to make that standard a reality.

"The American legal profession, with an annual income of $32.5 billion in 1983, is the wealthiest in the world. If the profession can meet this public need principally through decentralized, private-sector and voluntaristic means, the justice which is dispensed will be more effective justice, and it will not require the increased amounts of federal disbursement which fully adequate delivery of services would inevitably demand." Kellogg offers a number of specific ideas, including:

Federal assistance to help create third- year clinical programs like that developed by Washington's troubled Antioch School of Law;

Student loan agreements that would allow law graduates to pay off their indebtedness by working for a time with organizations devoted to providing legal services to the poor;

Federally enacted incentives for lawyers and law firms to provide significantly more pro bono legal work; and

Development of more ideas like the one initiated by the Florida Bar Foundation, which invests funds held in trust by private lawyers in common NOW accounts, with the interest being used t provide legal services for the poor. (In its first year, Florida raised more than $1 million through the program.)

Not only does Kellogg's proposal make sense in light of the conservative political climate and the Draconian requirements of the deficit reduction act; it also has a good chance of providing better services, at far less public expense, than