Today, the first Republican-led House in more than 40 years is leveling its sights on federal support for the arts - support that has had the blessing of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. as well as Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and has the approval of the majority of the American people.

With the growing recognition on all sides that there are things business can do better than government, the notion of privatization has acquired the illuminating power of an epiphany.As a conservative Republican and a businessman, I will be among the last to deny its virtues. In the Nixon administration, as postmaster general, I oversaw the partial privatization of the Post Office Department.

At the heart of the matter are the propositions that those who receive benefits should pay for them and that competition in a free market will provide the best services and products at the best price.

But the United States, like most nations, has also recognized that relying on the free market will not always work to the advantage of the whole country. That understanding justified keeping the Postal Service public for much of our history.

The Founding Fathers saw nothing wrong with underwriting an activity that benefited the private sector, since it also helped the whole nation.

The national interest was also served earlier in this century by broadening our agricultural base, and that couldn't be achieved rapidly enough by the invisible hand which that allocates capital. So the government subsidized rural electrification, farms were able to expand and modernize and the urban taxpayer ultimately got his investment back through a better selection of foods, at lower prices, on the dinner table.

So there is ample precedent for using public money to underwrite activities that benefit some directly and others residually - and in the matter of the arts this runs from ancient Greece to the present day.

A time may come when subsidies can be dispensed with. Wisdom resides in recognizing when that happens. It resides as well in knowing when the time has not come - and may never come.

Nor are the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, public television and other publicly financed contributions to the national culture a contemporary novelty. They have antecedents in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, which sponsored public art during the Depression.

The federal art, music and theater projects did not simply underwrite practicing artists, writers, composers and playwrights but also provided lessons. They taught some how to do the work, and others how to appreciate it.

These programs helped make art democratic. They were as essential to the synthesizing of a distinctive national culture as the Civil War was to the synthesizing of a distinctive national polity. If there is to be a debate over the utility of that objective, then let the debate be couched in those terms rather than in economic terms.

To suggest that the arts should rely for their health on private financing is simply a form of snobbery: It implies that those without means are incapable of producing art, or of appreciating it.

The issue under debate, purely and simply, should be, "Do the arts contribute to the commonwealth? Is art an inevitable component of the good society?" If some believe it is not, let them say so. And let them offer us examples of nations that have achieved greatness while turning their backs on art.

One sees in all this a great, lost opportunity. The role of the arts in our national life is a matter of no less consequence than the role of science, health care, education or the national defense. A fair debate on the arts and public policy ought to be an edifying contribution to our national life.

We have not seen this. Instead, every objection to public financing of the arts begins and ends with finger-pointing at what is seen as the inappropriate support for certain artists and the settling of old scores.

Influential people in the arts community bear major responsibility for the situation in which we now find ourselves, in which public funding for the arts has been put in jeopardy. Their actions have played into the hands of an organized constituency that opposes the very principle of federal support for arts and culture. This constituency looks for projects that may offend common good taste and tarnishes the NEA with them.

There is a fine line between challenging public taste and offending it. It is the responsibility of those who administer public funding for the arts to assure that line is not crossed. Still, the elimination of financing is not the appropriate response to the crossing of that line.

It is difficult to believe that anyone honestly sees the harsh imperatives of economics as compatible with the refining evolution of a culture. Yet the argument for privatization ultimately depends on such a belief.

If you doubt that a variant of Gresham's law functions in the shaping of a culture, turn on your television. Left to its own devices, bad entertainment drives out good entertainment. Bad art will drive out good art.

Yet, even on its face, the claim that fiscal prudence favors privatization is transparently faulty. In what other area of federal spending does one federal dollar generate 11 more dollars from the private sector? And some of these dollars flow back to the federal treasury.

Thus, if deficit reduction is the objective, it is obvious that we should be spending more, not less, on the arts.

We do have the right and obligation to demand accountability from those who dispense federal resources for the arts. It is reasonable to consider the merits of a cultural impact statement as part of the grant process. It is reasonable to demand corrections in the peer review process. It is to these corrections that we should be directing our attention now.

We may eliminate financing for the arts in order to avenge ourselves on the self-indulgent and the contemptuous few who caper on the edges of the arts community, and take whatever satisfaction is to be gained from that. But along the way, we will deny millions of people access to the pleasures of the arts.

If history judges our achievement as a nation, what will it say about those who would determine that art was merely an indulgence of the wealthy - that the whole populace did not need it and ought to be denied it by reason of their means?