SOCIALISTS today are likely to be following a moderate capitalist agenda. That's a thesis offered by Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury during President Reagan's first term, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Georgetown University in Washington.
There's some evidence to support such a generalization.
In France, President Fran,cois Mitterrand, reelected to a second term, has said repeatedly that he will not revert to a doctrinaire socialist policy. He will not reverse the Chirac government's program of privatization of nationalized companies. Nor will he raise income taxes. He will continue with the deregulation of his country's financial industry.
Across the English Channel, the Labour Party's policy review group last week suggested a decided turn to the middle in party strategy. The party, if it accepts the draft report's far-reaching overhaul of policy, will reject re-nationalization of industries privatized by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. The report instead calls for tougher regulation of major utilities. It suggests promoting the competitiveness of British companies.
Of course, Mrs. Thatcher now talks of running for a fourth term of office stretching well into the 1990s. Even with a more pro-capitalist platform, the Labour Party could remain in opposition.
In West Germany, the governing conservative Christian Democrat Party has suffered a defeat in its traditional northern stronghold of Schleswig-Holstein at the hands of the opposition Social Democrats. But a scandal in that state gave the election some aspects of a special circumstance.
In the United States, neither the Democrats nor Republicans would dare advocate socialism or even European-style social democracy. In fact, however, American government, with its various social measures, actually practices a weak form of social democracy.
All Western governments have what academics call ``mixed economies,'' with the proportion of the economy going through the government varying from about 28 percent (Japan) to 61 percent (Sweden). All levels of US government use about 36 percent of national output. Either a President George Bush or a President Michael Dukakis will remain thoroughly capitalist, though probably could be expected to move toward the economic center from the strong conservatism of President Reagan.
In each of these democracies, the desire to win an election tends to move major parties toward the middle, away from ideology. The result, notes Dr. Roberts, is that citizens often complain that there isn't ``a dime's difference'' between the presidential candidates.
One change in these days of Reaganism and the demonstrated economic failure of communism and orthodox socialism is that the so-called ``left'' behaves like moderate capitalists.
A decade or so ago, the so-called ``right'' behaved like moderate socialists, says Roberts, recalling as an example the wage and price controls imposed by President Nixon.
In the communist countries, China calls its capitalist practices socialism, perhaps winking an eye. Its peasants now have, in reality, private property (called long-term land contracts). Lessees of small factories are free to make a profit or loss like manu-facturers in capitalist countries.
Managers of large companies are given more power under a contract system to make decisions outside central planning and are systematically being freed from party control. China has been setting up free-enterprise zones, joint ventures with foreign capitalists, and even stock markets.
The result is a soaring economy, growing a real 9.4 percent last year. If that were to continue, China's national output would exceed that of the Soviet Union in a couple of decades.
Aware of this threat, Soviet party chief Mikhail Gorbachev has been pushing reforms. He deserves Western support, Margaret Thatcher told an interviewer last week.
West German commercial banks, with government approval, agreed to provide Moscow with $2 billion in credit to buy the equipment and know-how to modernize its food and consumer goods industries.
Such assistance is pouring money down a rat hole, Roberts contends. The Soviet reforms are too modest to make the economy substantially more efficient.
Even with such Western subsidies, the economy will fall further and further behind. Soviet leaders openly criticize central planning and the conservatism and privilege of the bureaucracy. But because they are afraid of losing political control, they limit their reforms. In China too, the Communist Party isn't likely to permit a genuine political rival for power.
Roberts wonders whether the Soviet Union, sliding down the economic chute, will attempt to retain its world position by military action.
But there are no signs of increased militarism at the moment. If anything, the withdrawal from Afghanistan that was to start Sunday indicates the reverse. What all this shows is that economic pragmatism has been overruling economic ideology around the world. Economic results are today more measurable.
Better-informed citizens are choosing leaders that offer tested economic methods, not theory.