It is an unkind testimonial to say of Charles L. Schultze, the retiring chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, that things might not have turned out much differently if he had done nothing for the past four years. Would inflation be much different? Would the number of unemployed be lower? Would the nation feel any less moody about its economic future?

In many ways, Schultze symbolizes the puzzle of the departing Carter administration: that a lot of good people went into government four years ago, and yet a government of good people didn't produce a good government. To study Schultze's tenure is to begin to understand why.

Anyone who knows Schultze, 56, is bound to feel a deep sadness. He is a man of great integrity, intellectual honesty and personal decency. People respect him and like working for him and, in government, bringing out the best in your staff is no small asset. He works hard himself -- probably too hard. In 1979, he was hospitalized nearly two months with a high fever, and he subsequently gave up chain smoking.

Beyond high personal qualities, he has talents that a president ought to cherish in a senior adviser. Scrupulously loyal, he rarely advertises his policy disagreements. He has a sponge-like mind for detail and analysis. When appointed, he already had an extensive working knowledge of government, having served President Johnson as director of the Bureau of the Budget.

But any dispassionate review is bound to be unflattering. When he took over, inflation was running slightly under 6 percent and the unemployment rate had dropped under 7.4 percent. Today inflation is roughly twice as high, and unemployment (7.4 percent in December) may well rise this year.

To say that there was any economic policy is almost an act of charity. What was most consistent about the Carter administration was its inability to make a proposal in January that could survive until June: In 1977 it withdrew its $50 tax rebate; in 1978 Congress contemptuously ignored most of its "tax reform" proposals; a year later a similar fate awaited the proposal for "real-wage insurance;" and in 1980 the administration was substantially revising its new budget barely a month after its submission.

To be sure, judging four years in two paragraphs is unfair. Schultze (and President Carter) had unappreciated successes. To name but two: the substantial deregulation of the airline and trucking industries. And when the archives are opened, there doubtlessly will be numerous instances when Schultze resisted major blunders -- possibly, for example, the ill-conceived rescue of Chrysler.

But these footnotes cannot obscure the overall sense of drift and loss of control. It's hard to avoid the feeling that Schultze is a man who arrived at the job 10 years too late. He came with the ideas of the 1960s and, though they had been considerably tempered and revised by experience, they proved unequal to the task at hand.

The Carter administration never projected a clear economic program or philosophy because it never had one. It persistently underestimated the economy's inflationary tendencies and vacillated between fighting inflation and sustaining growth. For this, Schultze must bear much responsibility.

His strategy consisted of combining modest use of the budget -- increasing spending in periods of slack, restraining it in periods of rising inflation -- with a program of wage and price standards. He expected further help from administrative and legislative actions that would ease inflationary pressures: scrutinizing government regulations so that they would not be excessively costly; making parts of the economy, such as airlines and trucking, more competitive; and resisting actions, such as import restrictions, that would raise prices.

Despite good elements, it's questionable whether this approach alone ever could work. In retrospect, the administration clearly paid too little attention to monetary policy; in effect, it encouraged relatively easy money that fed inflation as well as expansion. Interest rates may have appeared high. But, when adjusted for inflation, they were low.

To have any chance of success, the Schultze strategy needed two pillars that it never had: political support and public understanding. Only a president could provide these needed props, and Carter couldn't or wouldn't.

Wage-price guidelines couldn't work unless the administration had the political courage and competence to confront the politically sensitive wage settlements in the trucking, steel and auto industries. It didn't. And the strategy further required the political muscle to resist price-raising actions such as import restrictions and minimum-wage increases. Carter always opposed inflation, but rarely at the cost of offending important constituencies.

The issue of public understanding goes deeper. Some of today's mass disappointments reflect unrealistic expectations. Americans are essentially an optimistic people; if there's a problem, we expect that there will be a solution and that our leaders will find it. But some problems -- such as higher oil prices -- have no solution.

No economic policy can possibly succeed without a better public awareness of these limits. When everyone attempts to raise living standards in the face of pressures pushing them down, the only result is persistent inflation and, ultimately, a backlash of stagnation. But neither Carter nor anyone else succeeded in impressing this connection onto the public.

One of the Carter administration's proudest boasts is the nearly 9 million jobs the economy generated in the past four years, increasing total employment to 97.4 million. But if these jobs were bought with higher inflation that now brings sluggish growth (and higher joblessness), then it will be a dubious achievement.

What partially explains the puzzle of this administration was President Carter's own indecisiveness. Good people and goals weren't enough -- someone had to choose among them. This is a lesson the next administration ought to heed.