Dickens's finest novel, ''Great Expectations,'' traced the journey of its frail hero, Pip, from contentedness to a deserved but shattering comeuppance. ''David Copperfield'' measured our heart, but ''Great Expectations'' measured our soul. Life mimics art, and now this America retraces Pip's route, especially in the political arena.
The dawning and often ugly realization appears first here, then there, in fragments, though sometimes invisible. Some relatively ancient benchmarks measure the size and direction of the change.
Did a scientist really advise a powerful figure that, for $43 million, all tiny people could have their height increased six inches? And was the scientist promptly advised: ''You've got it.'' Apocryphal or not, the anecdote captures the spirit of our journey to unlimited great expectations.
Lowered expectations are thin gruel after the undiluted growth of all the material good things that continued for decades after World War II. Now we worry about the finiteness of those commonplace but preposterously valuable commodities, clean air and wholesome water.
There is more, of course. There will be relatively fewer new homes. They will be smaller. They will cost more. And more of us will live in apartments. Tuition for all schools is vertical and up. And the costs of our love affair with cars? Look out!
In the once-regulated arenas the news is even worse. ''Cost of service'' reigns supreme. But it means doubled phone rates very soon. It means the major air carriers will fly the new (read: ''smaller'') two-engine planes they looked down upon five years ago - and charge more. Actually, it's not that simple: Plane fare from Los Angeles to New York will be $99 and plane fare from Santa Fe to Hobbs, N.M., will be $199. It means the train and bus to Bisbee, Ariz., will be terminated. We now have a conscious national policy of furthering the growing sense of rural isolation.
Do you want to play tennis on a municipal court? Pay a fee. Or would you want to check out a library book, or eat your lunch in a park? Pay a fee. We will have finally identified the cost of everything, just as we no longer know the value of anything.
The agony of all this is concentrated on government, and most powerfully on the Congress. Churchill supposedly growled that he hadn't come to Downing Street ''to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.'' Members of Congress, particularly the new, have an ominous sense of being pushed in the direction of presiding over the dismantling of America's massive 20th-century mansion of social-service programs.
The point must be made that the pressure is not for decreases in growth rates. They are for termination of programs with, as we learned from Vietnam, ''maximum prejudice.'' A good-natured president, who is a fiscal radical, is determined to starve the monster. And he has made some headway. He has the relatively quiet but nonetheless powerful support of the well-to-do. But many in the middle class resent what they believe to be the shiftless, the ne'er-do-well , the nonpayers of dues, the demands unaccompanied by performance. Few speak their thoughts; many hold them.
What do we do here on the Hill?
It isn't acceptable that the weak, the youthful, the most unfortunate, pay the bill. It isn't acceptable that we increase our national defense outlay 15 percent per year. It isn't acceptable that we generate $200 billion per year in deficits.
Is it then our task to preside over this dissolution? To convey the fact of the delusion at the heart of our great national expectations? Will any political constituency forgive us if we do? Will history forgive us if we don't?