Imagine a world without the Environmental Protection Agency to tell us what we should be breathing. Imagine, too, that there is no National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall Pintos or Firestone tires. And no Consumer Product Safety Commission to expose the dangers of asbestos high dryers.

No Occupational Safety and Health Administration to remove cancer hazards from the workplace. No Drug Enforcement Angency to chase smugglers. No Mine Safety Agency and Health Administration to clean up the atrocious conditions facing minors. No National Transportation Safety Board to investigate train and airplane disasters. No Council on Wage and Price Stability to reveal gougers. And no Federal Election Commission to tell us who paid to elect the candidates of their choice.

Imagine 1970 . . . because none of those agencies existed that year.

Unquestionably the '70s was a decade of the regulatory boom; A time when the American public began to distrust once untouchable institutions like medicine, law, banking and big business.

It was also a time the American public lost its shyness and began to demand more safeguards and, generally, a fair shake. When a company puts out a bad product today, its president is likely to hear about from a public that will call him or her directly to complain.

The number of malpractice suits against lawyers and doctors has grown exponentially to the point where they are now commonplace.

More importantly, the public has come to expect that it will be protected by the government from unsafe products, dangerous drugs, pollution, unfair business practices and all manner of troubles.

No fewer than 20 major federal regulatory agencies were created in the 1970s. Congress has passed countless bills calling for consumer safeguards, and created the agencies to enforce those protections. The federal government will spend about $6 billion next year to operate about 56 agencies that in some way regulate industry. That is more than six times the amount that was spent 10 years ago.

But that money has not been thrown away. It has been said that nearly a hundred thousand lives have been saved over the past decade because of enforcement of highway and safety regulation, and the use of government-ordered safety features such as seatbelts and stronger bumpers on cars, or helmets at construction sites. Although it is difficult to make a quantitive judgment of how much cleaner the air or waterways are, air emmissions of particulates have dropped dramatically, and some rivers and lakes are acceptable for swimming for the first time in years.

Advertising has become more honest, with manufacturers having to justify their claims as they never had to before.

Consumer products clearly are safer than they ever were before. Child-proof pill bottles have prevented thousands of poisenings. A ban on small or sharp-edged parts on toys for little children also has averted many possible tragedies. Product safety standards have resulted in a 50 percent drop in fatalities from crib strangulation.

Stockholders of corporations know more than they have ever known about the inner workings of the companies they have invested in, thanks to government-ordered disclosure practices. When officers of companies buy or sell large amounts of stock in those companies, for example, the public now has to be told.

But, as was bound to happen in a society facing increasing economic troubles, a question that is being asked about regulation without increasing frequency is: At what cost?

Industries are claiming that the cost of complying with the barrage of regulations is too high. Some companies say they have gone, or will go, out of business if they are forced to pay the price of certain regulations.

"Our society's resources are vast," said President Carter in a message to Congress in April on the subject of regulatory reform, "but they are not infinite.Americans are willing to spend a fair share of these resources to achieve social goals through regulation. Their support falls away, however, when they see needless rules, excessive costs and duplicate paperwork. If we are to continue our progress, we must ensure that regulation gives Americans their money's worth."

And there is reason to believe that in many cases the public is not getting its money's worth.

When airline passenger fares finaly deregulated last year, for example, travelers saved $2.5 billion in reduced fares and industry profits jumped because of increased ridership. Some slight changes in EPA water pollution standards will save industry $200 million with no loss in water quality.

Then there was the case of the public library in Rudd, Iowa.The city nearly was forced to install ramps for handicapped persons at a cost almost equal to the library's annual budget. The city finally won a last-minute exemption when it was learned that not a single handicapped person lived in Rudd.

And many regulatory problems have not been cleared up.Take the case of trucking regulation. A trucker can haul railroad ties without interference from the federal government if the ties are cut from logs that were sawed crosswise. But if they were sawed lengthwise, the trucker must get a certificate from the Interstate Commerce Commission. Similarly truckers can haul riding horses; whole wheat, but not wheat germ; and parrot food, but not hamster or gerbil food.

There is also the growing problem of conflicting regulations. Hospitals in Baltimore are required by federal regulations to keep hot water coming from the taps in patients' rooms at 110 degrees or less; city law requires them to keep the same water at 110 degrees or more.

Operators of a meat-packing plant were told by one federal agency to wash the floors several times for cleanliness. Then they were told by another agency to keep the floors dry so that the employees won't slip and fall.

One company spent a small fortune to install an internal air exhaust system that would keep the air in a factory clean enough to meet OSHA standards. Only weeks after the system began working, the EPA came along and cited the company because the exhaust system was polluting the outside air.

"The question regulators are learning to ask themselves is: 'What is the value of what we can get in light of the costs of regulation?'" said Peter Petkas, director of the Regulatory Council, which was set up by the White House to streamline the regulatory process.

"In the past we haven't systematically attempted to devise regulations that would (encourage) businessmen, consumers and private parties to minimize costs or to find ways to produce benefits in the most efficient way," Petkas said. "Too often people in government have seen their job as policing the public instead of helping the people obey the rules in the most efficient way."

Petkas claims the public is ambivalent about federal regulations. He acknowledges that public opinion polls show that people believe there is too much regulation. "But when people are asked about specific kinds of regulations such as that affecting working safety, clean water and air, and protection against toxic wastes, they reply that even more regulation is needed," he adds. "Three Mile Island and the DC10 experience reinforce these feelings."

So the argument now centers on how best to regulate with the limited resources that will be available. The Regulatory Council has published its first two semiannual calendars, which for the first time force agencies to publish cost-benefit analyses of their proposed major regulations, and at the same time show that the method they are advocating is the most economical way to meet their goals.

"The pertinent policy questions are no longer 'Are you for or against clean air or safe products?' or other such absolutes," said Murray Weidenbaum, director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis. "Increasingly the public discussions are in terms of such less emotional and long-neglected questions as 'How well is the regulatory process working?' and 'Are there better ways of achieving the public's desire?'"

But the concept of subjecting regulation to cost-benefit analysis is looked at with great concern by consumer advocates. "On the face of it, cost-benefit analysis seems value-free and even-handed," said Mark Green, director of Ralph Nader's Congress Watch. "If the costs outweigh benefits, you issue the regulation; if they do not, you don't."

But the concept is not that simple, said Green. He and others contend it has, and will, become a tool for industry to use to kill regulation.

"Who controls the data about what an environmental regulation would cost industry?," asked Green."Industry," he answered. He claims that industry's record of estimating the price tag on regulation "seems based on the Chicken Little school of economic analysis."

Green cited the case of the chemical manufacturers, who warned in the early 1970s that a proposed OSHA standard on vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, could cost two million jobs and $65 billion to $90 billion to comply with. OSHA implemented the standard anyway, and the industry complied "without job losses and at a $300 million cost," Green said.

Even worse than questionable cost estimates is that "it is often impossible to put a dollar value on the obvious benefits of regulation," Green contends. "How does one estimate now the number of lives that may be saved by avoiding future diseases?" he asks. "What is the value of avoiding pain and suffering to an auto crash victim?"

Somewhere there is a middle ground between the needs of the public and the needs of industry. Whether the federal government ever will be equipped to find that appropriate middle ground in the 1980s is an unanswered question.