Personal ethics: an alternative to big government?

''The cynics were wrong - America never was a sick society. We're seeing a rededication to bedrock values of faith, family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom . . . .''

The words, from President Reagan's State of the Union message, had hardly been uttered before they disappeared in a late-January blizzard of events that included his reelection announcement and the budget presentation. So we nearly missed a major point. This State of the Union address turns a kind of corner. It presents a more insistent presidential call than we have heard in years for what Mr. Reagan describes as ''our traditional values.''

I say that advisedly. I've just read the last 15 years' worth of State of the Union messages. (What are columnists for, if not to spare their readers such ordeals?) No other recent President has made so strong a point about basic values. No other President has tried to shift the focus of attention away from the impersonal standards of institutions and onto the personal ethics of individuals.

To be sure, many have touched lightly on values: Richard Nixon in 1972 noted, ''We believe in the family as the keystone of the community, and in the community as the keystone of the Nation,'' and Jimmy Carter in 1979 repeated the ideals of the Founding Fathers by citing ''words like justice, equality, unity, sacrifice, liberty, faith, and love.'' Many have risen to grandiloquent moral sentiment in their perorations. But no recent President has discussed values so forthrightly - making it (as Mr. Reagan did) one of his four major points and devoting nearly one-fifth of his time to it. Other messages have proposed bureaucratic solutions for ethical problems. This one seems to place government institutions within the larger context of the individual's systems of values.

''But, but, but,'' I hear the cynics spluttering, ''don't you see that was all inflated rhetoric?'' But rhetorical terms, like economic indicators, can be corrected for inflation. I see the inconsistencies - the whiff of illogic in his saying that ''America never was a sick society'' after proclaiming last year that ''America is on the mend.'' I'm aware that he is using this new bottle of ethico-religious terminology to hold the same old socio-political wine of tuition tax credits and cuts in the federal education budget. So let's factor out the rhetoric.

There remains a philosophical stance different from any we've seen recently.

What are we to make of it? What does it signify when the President calls for ''strengthening our community of shared values,'' notes that ''families stand at the center of our society,'' urges that parents be put ''back in charge'' of education, and proclaims that such ''rededication to values'' shows that ''the spirit of renewal'' is ''gaining the upper hand''? What does it mean when this tone contrasts sharply with the routine language of his three other goals - economic growth, space exploration, and international peace? What does it mean that, of his four points, this one comes neither first nor last (where it could be dismissed as introducing or concluding the ''real'' issues) but third, where it can't be excused?

I like to think it tells us something not only about the President but about ourselves. Leaders, after all, don't just set the tone; they also reflect the tenor of the nation. These days, the nation seems increasingly willing to recognize that the erosion of family life in the 20th century is perhaps the greatest threat we face - far more dangerous to the survival of the American tradition than any belligerency beyond our borders.

If that's reading too much into his words, I'll settle for a narrower conclusion: that the President is echoing a trend among the young toward more traditional, family-supporting values. Not that young people are flocking toward Reagan Republicanism: They still hold strongly ''liberal'' views on many social issues. But, as a survey in the December-January issue of Public Opinion magazine notes, today's 18- to 24-year-olds are much more willing than their counterparts of a decade ago to condemn extramarital sex, laissez faire views of homosexuality, and legalized abortion.

I read another conclusion as well: that while every President since Mr. Johnson has lashed out at ''big government,'' we are only now developing a viable alternative to bigness. Government, after all, is essential: the citizenry is going to be governed by something. The question is: Will it be governed more by external or internal constraints - by institutional bureaucracy , or by individual responsibilities arising from ''a community of shared values''?

At bottom, it's a simple trade-off. Only when individual values are in ascendancy can government be reined in. If such values really are being broadly reasserted, then the state of the union - measured both by the strength of its families and the narrowing of its central government - is fundamentally healthy.

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