As Ronald Reagan's budget chief, David Stockman attempted the political equivalent of climbing the Himalayas in sneakers. He tried to make congressmen, Cabinet secretaries and even the president judge federal spending on the basis of national need, not interest-group power. He failed, but his failure is as much ours as his. His approach may be naive, but the alternative is paralysis.

It's easy now to smirk at his earnestness. Of all Reagan's appointees, Stockman has been the simplest to parody. He was the White House's errant boy genius: too brash, too hard-working and (often) too candid. His resignation inspired ambivalent reactions. Even his adversaries expressed admiration for his talents and diligence. But the praise was tinged with a perverse satisfaction that, after all, the child prodigy had failed.

Stockman's crusade to close budget deficits was widely misconstrued. It was falsely, though understandably, portrayed as a liberal-conservative struggle. In fact, it was simply an effort to modernize government -- to eliminate outdated or marginal programs. Government ought to respond to changing national needs, but it quickly becomes the captive of existing constituencies. Stockman sought to loosen this stranglehold.

So, he constantly flailed at the archaic assumptions that underpin the status quo. He objected to treating all the elderly as poor, when their disposable per capita income roughly equals the national average. He couldn't stomach Depression-era farm programs, conceived to save the "family farm," when the farm population has declined three-quarters since 1940. And he couldn't justify a definition of need that qualified roughly half of all college students for federal assistance.

His illusion was that ideas and evidence ultimately could prevail. But he also understood, as few in Washington do, that only a new consensus about government's role can break the budget stalemate. Otherwise, there is no rationale for ending any federal benefits; and -- precisely because government programs are unconnected by an underlying philosophy -- there is no broad argument for higher taxes. The result is today's interest-group consensus: that government should spend 24 percent of gross national product and take as taxes only 19 percent.

Though never fully defined, Stockman's vision of government had three legs: (l) national defense; (2) a "safety net" to protect the weak in a free-market economy and (3) a grab bag of jobs -- from national parks to research to environmental protection -- that serve demonstrable national needs but wouldn't be done privately.

Not every Stockman proposal was wise, but he generally asked the right questions and gave cogent answers. He was sometimes too stingy with programs for the poor, but that strategy was, in part, forced upon him. It reflected the president's unwillingness to apply strict standards to Pentagon spending and an equal congressional reluctance to confront more popular -- and politically entrenched -- middle-class subsidies.

The effort to inject rationality into budgeting always faced immense odds. Stockman might argue endlessly, for example, that Amtrak served no public purpose: that it provided only one-quarter of 1 percent of intercity transportation and that most rail passengers could take the bus. Or he might patiently explain that subsidized Small Business Administration loans actually hurt the more than 99 percent of small businesses that don't receive help and have to face artificial competition.

But these arguments had little meaning for congressmen and lobbies, whose power, sense of self-importance or very existence depends on preserving current programs. There is a peculiar logic to deficit politics. Congressmen fear the consequences of voting against specific programs. But there is less fear of collective failure. If deficits persist, the public (it is thought) won't retaliate by retiring the entire Congress.

What really doomed Stockman, though, was lack of presidential support. Reagan constantly inveighs against excessive spending in the abstract. But he rarely attacks specific programs that might be unjustified. He recoils at the unpleasant truth that eliminating ill-conceived programs inflicts genuine harm on real people. Nor can he admit even deep spending cuts might still require higher taxes to balance the budget. In short, he has not tried to define government's legitimate limits. He left the dirty work to Stockman.

But, that said, it's a myth to attribute the deficits simply to Reagan's defense buildup and tax cut. In 1981, taxes (as a percentage of GNP) were at a post-World War II high. Without a reduction, the 1985 income tax burden would have been 20 to 25 percent higher than the postwar average, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Likewise, 1985 spending under pre-Reagan policies would have been almost what it is today; defense would have been lower, but non-defense higher. And the 1980s' high interest rates mostly reflect reversal of the inflationary low-interest-rate policies of the 1970s.

So, as Stockman departs, government remains at a generational juncture. For years, spending was carelessly increased on the assumption that it could be accommodated by rapid economic growth or defense reductions. But defense could not be reduced forever, and economic growth was optimistically overestimated. Government must now remodel or continue floundering.

Government is our collective response to collective needs. In the future, new needs will arise. Even now, worthy programs are being crimped. The inability to apply exacting standards to existing programs cripples government's legitimate functions and implies big deficits or damaging tax burdens. As an architect for the future, Stockman had better ideas than most. Unfortunately, he was an outcast even in his own administration.