In theory Americans are quick to resent government interference with personal freedom, especially the freedom to move about. If you want to move to Iowa, say, you just do it.

But in Russia you do not just live where you please. You do not move to Moscow simply because you think it would be nice to live in that capital. On the contrary, you need permission to move there.

You probably read a few days ago about a Russian woman who defected to this country. She said she was aware the Federal Bureau of Investigation might be suspicious that she was a double agent. She said the FBI told her:

"This country was built on the principle that people should live where they want."

Again, this week you noticed the American delegates to Budapest, where the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe has been meeting, found it impossible to agree on a joint statement with their Soviet colleagues. As a press report put it:

"U.S. officials responded that the Soviets had failed to address western concerns about . . . freedom of movement."

Even without these two recent references to the American right to move freely, it is obvious to Americans that you can live where you please and that no state can forbid other Americans from entering that state or living there.

There was a time in New York City, by the way, when a great influx of poor blacks from the South made heavy demands on welfare funds. The New York Times, which probably did not want to rail against blacks as such, contented itself with complaining of the "cesspool of Mississippi education," but one way or another the complaint was clear enough: Why should New York have to support the poor of other states? Especially if the school system has not prepared them for good jobs?

But even so, nobody suggested a law to forbid poor Mississippians' moving to New York.

Suppose a million New Yorkers moved to northern Alabama? There is no doubt the resources of the state would be strained, the existing racial balance disturbed and so forth. All the same, there is nothing to prevent such moves.

In the American West, the influx of people from the rest of the nation has caused grievous harm to the naturally delicate balance of nature out there. Water tables have fallen, air pollution has increased in a shocking way, and newcomers are planting all the wrong trees. But you can't keep Americans out of America.

As far as that goes, Californians have descended on this capital, with results I personally find deplorable. But there is no constitutional possibility of making them stay in Wee Sur.

Now then. If it's unconstitutional to forbid people to live in New York or Washington or Tucson or Fat Sesame, it is equally unconstitutional to force them to live there, or force them to live anywhere else they do not like.

Which brings us to the District of Columbia and its frequently insane notions. Firemen and cops, for example, have to live within the city.

There is a difference, I freely admit, between forcing a guy to live in the District and merely proclaiming that he cannot be a fireman or cop unless he does. He could still live in Bethesda, say, as long as he didn't try to put out fires or catch crooks here.

But the thing to notice is that this is government policy, and the effect is to restrict the otherwise unarguable right of firemen and cops to live where they please, just like the rest of us.

One argument I have heard is that if District taxpayers are going to hand out salaries, they should hand them out only to residents of the District.

This is, of course, total baloney.

When you let small city governments make rules that for certain jobs you must live within the city, not in the suburbs, you will soon wind up with larger and more important governments making similar restrictions about where you may or may not live.

In Russia, you recall, you need a permit to live in Moscow. I do not see that much difference between that and a District in which you must live within the city to hold a fireman's or policeman's job.

The minute a government starts restricting freedom of domicile, the public should start vigorous protest. Here, however, since very few of us are firemen or cops, we say in effect that it's perfectly all right to put restrictions on where they live, as long as it doesn't affect us.

I have been an American the better part of a century now, and if we may stop the ritual alleluias to how great Americans are, for a second, I should say I have noticed again and again that there is virtually no interest whatever in America in restrictions on personal freedom, as long as one is not greatly inconvenienced oneself.

A populace that does not much care that a petty government can tell firemen where to live is a populace become docile and compliant to government. And God help any citizenry that relies on the brains, experience or sense of justice of any government in this world. Government in America is instituted of men to serve. The minute a government starts (for its own convenience or profit) monkeying about with such a basic right as where a wage-earning public servant must dwell, is the minute a citizenry should wake up for a change.