FOLLOWING A LECTURE by an expert on nuclear energy, a member of the audience approached the speaker: "Before I heard you speak I was very confused about nuclear energy. Now I'm still confused, but on a much higher plane."

We have heard and read a lot about Washington's administrative agencies. Liberals and conservatives alike now call for their abolition -- or at least "deregulation." Once the people's protectors, the regulators are commonly perceived to have been simply "captured" by the very industries they were supposed to regulate.

"Not so," says Harvard political science professor James Q. Wilson. "The behavior to be explained is complex and changing; it cannot easily be summarized." In The Politics of Regulation he and his students have put together nine case studies -- ranging from the Maritime Commission to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration -- to try to prove his point.

So why isn't government working? Like the audience for the nuclear power lecture, in the end Wilson leaves us still confused, but on a much higher plane.

Whatever one ultimately concludes about their analysis, however, Professor Wilson and his colleagues have researched, written and assembled a remarkably useful collection of administrative lore.

Each of us approaches the study of government from his own perspective. Economists see the impact of the agencies upon the gross national product, or the "free market." Students of public administration examine internal management. Lawyers focus on the legalities of "administrative procedure." Sociologists and anthropologists are interested in the employes' institutional behavior and culture. Artists see a bureaucratic stifling of the human spirit. Each is a valid, and needed, perspective.

Wilson and his colleagues come to the agencies as political scientists, studying "the politics of regulation." More particularly, they are interested in "the relationship between public and private power . . . the extent to which public policy will simply reflect the interests of some dominant private party."

Their range of agencies is vast. They begin with state public utility commissions, with emphasis on electric regulation by New York, California and Wisconsin. They go on to consider the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), Antitrust Division of Justice, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the old HEW Office for Civil Rights.

They discuss the politics surrounding the historical origins of these agencies and acknowledge that a number were created either as a consequence of corporate requests, or with industry acquiescence: state electric utility regulation, CAB, FTC and FDA. They duly note industry's efforts to pressure Congress into cutting back on agencies' powers once created: OSHA, EPA and, most recently and dramatically, the FTC. Nonetheless, they find support for their thesis that public policy does not "simply reflect the interests of some dominant private party" in the fact that occasionally legislation does slip through Congress over industry opposition.

They describe how these agencies define their tasks and go about executing them, what major controversies they have confronted, and how one might best explain why they seem to choose one course of action rather than another.

Wilson and his colleagues have also put together a useful explanation of factors (beyond industry domination) that influences agency performance. Appointments make a difference: Alfred Kahn at the N.Y. Public Service Commission and CAB; Leonard Ross at the California Public Utilities Commission. Personal professional drives (apart from seeking jobs in industry by pleasing the regulated) play a role. Government doctors, lawyers, economists, scientists and engineers may be influenced by professional peers outside government. The authors cite, for example, antitrust lawyers' desire to seek trial experience as a reason for the FTC's former petty-case-by-petty-case approach to enforcement. Wilson believes a major drive of agencies is merely a "defensive, threat-avoiding, scandal-minimizing instinct" for self-preservation. What appears the result of "bureaucratic ineptitude" may be merely "the result of the sheer magnitude of many regulatory tasks."

There are some omissions. Wilson notes that "organized groups no doubt affect the appointment process," and yet acknowledge that "we gathered no information on that." There is no discussion of the, by now, highly publicized role of the Washington bar. No mention is made of trade association politics. Campaign contributions get little attention because "these matters are not always open to scrutiny." There is some awareness of the role of the media in promoting reform, but little said about that of censorship in preserving the status quo (the general media's failure to cover the regulatory commissions on a regular basis is a scandal). And there is no reference whatsoever to the role of the influential trade press.

There is some ambivalence within the authors' main thesis. On the one hand, the thrust of their argument is that agencies are not captured by industry, that ours is a pluralistic nation in which the forces of big business are offset by the forces of Ralph Nader and other citizen activists. On the other hand, Wilson acknowledges that "where benefits remain concentrated and costs widely distributed, the pattern of client politics will persist." But that is basically all the "capture" advocates have ever claimed.

At least I have never lectured about what I call the "subgovernment phenomenon" (policy control by leading firms, trade associations, trade press, bar associations, agencies' staff, and congressional subcommittees) without making clear the conditions under which the subgovernment comes into existence: The agency must have great discretion, the beneficiaries be few, the wealth created be significant, and the general media must leave the principals to function under a large, damp rock.

A high proportion of American industries are today oligopolies: four firms or fewer control a third to a half of the industry. The reason the FTC, EPA, OSHA and Antitrust Division aren't "captured" is not because of Nader's countervailing power, but because they are responsible for more than a single oligopolistic industry. There are other reasons why such agencies are not as vigilant in serving the public interest as they might be. (One of Wilson's colleagues takes satisfaction from the conclusion that of the 32 cases of political intervention in antitrust cases found by Nader since World War II, "only" a dozen "were both successful and tainted by a reasonable possibility that any corruption was involved.")

The examples they find of government action without business support are, in almost every instance, proceded by some crisis or massive publicity that makes a failure to act impossible. Electric peak-load pricing and "lifeline" (below cost) service followed a doubling of electric rates during 1973-74. The Shipping Act of 1916 was a response to a 10-fold increase in shipping costs during 1914-16. The Sherman Act was preceded by great media attention to monopolists' abuses during the 1880s. The FDA was a reaction to The Jungle, sulfanilamide and thalidomide. OSHA followed the Farmington, West Virginia, mine disaster in November 1968. Congress created the EPA after two timely Nader reports and the 1970 Earth Day.

But the "captive" theorists have not argued that legislation opposed by business is never passed by Congress. They say it is rare; that it is not the norm; and, more important, that a steady process of erosion takes place following its passage. They have not argued that there are no public interest representatives appointed to regulatory agencies -- a Kenneth Cox to the FCC, a Michael Pertschuk to the FTC. They argue that such appointments are rare, that they seldom constitute a majority of any multi-headed agency, and that, on those rare instances when such a majority does prevail briefly, it tends to be struck down by industry in some way -- as witness the pressure on Congress to retaliate against Pertschuk's FTC.

The Politics of Regulation is bound to become a major text in many courses in political science, law, economics, business and public administration. It provides a wealth of history-and-case-study material any student of the ways of Washington will find useful. It may be less than fully successful, however, in convincing millions of Americans, those who feel unrepresented and ripped off by a government subservient to big business, that they have really been getting a fair shake all along.