For years now there has been growing disquiet about the United States income tax system. Conservatives argue that the federal tax code - based on the notion of ''progressivity,'' with affluent citizens expected to bear a progressively larger portion of the total tax burden than poorer citizens - penalizes success. Liberals maintain that the current system is unfair, because the well-to-do escape taxes through loopholes. Now, some key advisers within the White House talk of making ''tax reform'' a major administration goal for 1984.
Specifically, the issue now being debated is whether to have the President sign on to the tax-reform bandwagon as part of his State of the Union message in January. Advisers urging such a course argue that calling for unspecified tax reform would be one way of tackling the issue of federal budget deficits. Federal deficits are expected to soar in the range of $200 billion and more over the next several years. At the same time, according to these advisers, ''tax reform'' could have considerable political appeal.
President Reagan has himself raised the idea of tax reform in recent months. Over the years he has discussed a major overhaul of the tax system by means of a reform along the lines of a ''flat tax'' instead of the present graduated income tax.
A flat tax can be calculated in various ways. Under proposals made by congressional conservatives, a flat tax would impose a uniform tax rate on individuals. Another proposal, made by Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Richard Gephardt, both Democrats, would retain certain tax breaks and also retain somewhat progressive tax rates.
Another reform option being considered by presidential advisers would be a so-called ''consumption tax.'' Under such a tax, the levy would be imposed on income that is actually spent, as contrasted with the current system whereby taxes are imposed on earned income, minus certain adjustments and deductions.
Surely, there is more than ample justification for a far-reaching reform of the tax system. The current system, with all its exemptions, breaks, deductions, and so forth, is a bewildering hodgepodge. The main purpose of the tax code, to gather adequate revenues for the government, has been partly perverted as the code has become a vehicle for promoting political objectives, from homeownership to child care. That is not to say that such objectives are wrong. In fact, the mortgage-interest deduction has to a large extent ensured that the United States remains a nation of homeowners. But still, the present tax code has become highly unwieldy.
Yes, further tax reform seems essential. The President's tax cut plan of 1981 has already gone far in reducing tax rates for upper-income brackets. So a comprehensive simplifying of the entire code would surely seem logical. What would, however, be clearly unwise would be to turn the legitimate need for tax reform into a short-term political pursuit. What would seem far better would be a cautious, long-range consideration of how best to restructure the code, undertaken in close concert with Congress and perhaps even following a presidential commission - as was done regarding social security reform.
Comprehensive tax reform should not become a substitute for practical steps necessary to reduce federal budget deficits. The better approach for reducing deficits would seem to be a tax surcharge, or contingency tax, similar to what the administration proposed last year.
Although reform remains a worthy goal, Congress is unlikely to tackle such a controversial subject in a presidential election year.
That being so, let's concentrate on what is needed for now - namely, reducing the deficits.