Our two tax returns were finally finished on Monday afternoon, and as my wife was adding her signature to mine, I wrote the checks that would accompany the returns.

When I finished, I stared at the amounts for a long time. "What's the matter?" my joint tenant asked. "Can't you bear to part with the money?"

"I can bear it," I conceded, "but only because there's no alternative. I just wonder how much longer the American people are going to continue to pay for more government than they want or need, and how much longer they're going to tolerate excessive government spending and the frightful waster of their tax dollars."

She plopped my hat on my head and steered me toward the door. "Spare me your annual tax speech," she said, "and don't forget to mail those two envelopes on your way to work."

Ah, yes. Work. There was a column to be written, and I knew just what it would say. The opening sentence formed in my mind quickly: "What this country needs is less government." Short and sweet. Then the next paragraph could start off with . . .

I was distracted for a moment. In the entire string of gasoline stations I was passing, not one had posted a price sign that could be read from the roadway. At two stations, all the price numbers except the final ".9" had been removed. At one, the sign contained a 7, then a hole, and then the final .9. Heaven only knows whether its price for regular was 70.9, 79.9, or something in between.

Doggone those guys, I said to myself, they're supposed to post prices. And legible octane ratings, too, but half of them don't do that, either. By golly, if I was in charge I'd have an inspector on their tails three times a week until they learned to behave. I'd. . .

THUD! The granddadd of all potholes jarred gasoline prices right out of my head. By golly, if I was in charge of fixing streets I'd hire some extra crews and get them fixed, that's what I'd. . .

A radio newscast interrupted my train of thought with new reports of radiation in the vicinty of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Meanwhile, the people who designed the plant were, in effect, disclaiming responsibility for the recent crisis there. Their position is that human error caused the trouble. "Plant operators need a lot more training."

Very interesting. But who knows where the truth really lie? By golly, if I was in charge I'd do three things, and do them fast. I'd get a team of impartial experts to establish who or what was at fault. Then I'd get some new laws on the books to prohibit whatever needed to be prohibited. And, finally, I'd have government inspectors watching every move made in nuclear generating plants, to make sure the new laws were obeyed.

And at that point, an old thought returned to crowd out all the new thoughts that had been coursing through my brain. I got back to my protest against taxes and government spending - and suddenly there was sheepish realization that if I were really in charge, there might be even more government spending than we already have.

If you want to be protected against the bad guys, you must hire good guys to make good rules, and good guys to enforce them. You need judges and courthouses and jail guards and fire-fighters and public health experts and nuclear scientists and soldiers and teachers and agronomists and meteorologists and chicken inspectors and people who fix broken water mains and doctors and bridge builders and record keepers and building inspectors and foreign service officers and forest rangers and postage stamp designers and customs collectors and intelligence gatherers and archivists and census takers and regulatory agency watchdogs and dam builders and map-makers and patent examiners and auditors and nutritionists and pothole patchers-yes, and even lawyers and tax collectors, alas.

By the time I reached the office, my definiion of excessive government spending had undergone extensive revision.

I realized that excessive government spending is spending that benefits you but does not benefit me. Spending that benefits me but does not benefit you is not excessive, however. My projects are always practical, inexpensive and vital to the national interest. No reasonable person would object to them.

Once I attained this new understanding of taxes and government spending, I decided not to publish my protest against high taxes. That's why there is no District Line column today.