The first time I went to Britain I was shocked. I had been reading stories about high estate taxes, about how the wealthy had gone the way of the colonies, about a society so bereft of luxury that, aside from the quaint way of speaking, you would have thought, ducky, you were in bloody Russia itself. I was, I soon found, misinformed.

And so someone would be if he came here after reading about our fiscal crisis. This person would have been reading about deficits and about government programs being curtailed for lack of money. But just as I encountered Jaguars galore on the streets of London and crowds three deep at the gaming tables, you would find little evidence that the United States is in the midst of an economic crisis -- one so profound that it cannot fund necessary programs. Now, though, it is the Library of Congress that is being put on Depression rations.

If there is a hierarchy of government services and programs, then it's hard to argue that a library should be at the top. We are, after all, not talking milk for babies, cancer research, a lawyer for a poor person or anything about life and death. Instead, we're talking about a curtailment of existing services. The hours in which the reading rooms will be opened to the public will be reduced by one third. Services to the blind and the handicapped will be cut back; 300 of the library's 5,200 staff will be eliminated, and aquisitions and preservation of books and other materials will be reduced.

But why? On the streets near the library there is prosperity. All around are the signs of it. Inside, though, books that should be bought will not be. Blind people will be turned away. Scholars will be told to come back in the morning. A rich, prosperous nation has decided that some things are more important than learning, than scholarship and -- maybe even more disturbing -- more important than respect for them. What ought to be untouchable, what represents the corpus of knowledge, is being mauled as if it were a boondoggle of a water project.

There is a question here of values -- like the family that would rather buy a new car than pay for college tuition. In the case of the Reagan administration, it is not just that its priority is the military and that, for the sake of more guns, everything else must suffer. It's more than that. The reduction in the library's budget is a rebuff to the notion of community, to the idea that we owe one another and that knowledge is jointly held -- both a heritage from the past and a resource for the future. Now the emphasis is on the individual and the present. The lonesome entrepreneur riding a horse of conservative claptrap is somehow supposed to invent a whole new future. He owes nothing and is owed nothing.

Pure politics is not the issue here. No one says that the library, like public radio, should be of no concern to the government. No one is arguing that the government should not provide the poor with lawyers, support ballet or teach suburbanites how to clip rose bushes. No. The Library of Congress is as old as the nation itself. Its seeds came from Jefferson's own library at Monticello. What is being said, instead, is that we won't support it. We simply choose not to. We prefer to keep the money for ourselves.

That is the stark truth of it. This is a fiscal crisis of our own concoction. Libraries may have closed in the Great Depression, but there is no depression -- great or otherwise -- now. Other governments may be forced, because of debt or plummeting oil prices, to abolish programs, but this one does it because it chooses to. After all, no one accused the Library of Congress of doing too much, of wasting its money -- of serving too many blind people, of purchasing too many books. We are simply saying we choose not to support it.

Now, like me on my first trip to Britain, a visitor here would see immediately that something is out of joint. The country is prosperous, its public institutions not. The stock market booms, the streets are full of Mercedeses and Cadillacs, but the Library of Congress is going be closed when it used to be open. What started as a fiscal crisis is now one of values. We are poorer than we think.