Inflation fighters have aimed their sights at the bloated federal bureaucracy and its mountains of unproductive - and often counterproductive - paperwork. There's no doubt they have chosen a worthy target.

American businessmen, from the executives of our biggest industries to the proprietor of the corner hardware store, complain that they are grievously overregulated, snowed under by the paper blizzard. The complaint of the nation's businessmen, big and small, is the same: Get the paper-shufflers off our backs.

Regulation has become one of the most expensive functions of the federal government. The Center for study of American Business at Washington University estimated that federal regulatory costs totaled $65.5 billion in 1976. One expert in the field, Murray Weidenbaum, predicted that, if unchecked, the figure will rise to a staggering $102.7 billion in fiscal 1979.

But while it is clear that the regulatory bureaucracy is swollen and often inefficient, it is equally clear that the regulators- goals are desireable ones and that business complaints are frequently exaggerated.

A prime example involves the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its fight to protect workers from the effects of vinyl chloride. Following discovery that vinyl-chloride dust in the air can cause liver cancer, OSHA issued new safety standards, cutting the permissible exposure a worker can tolerate from 500 parts-per-million to one part-million.

Industry immediately struck up a fearful howl: The new standards would force them to shut down, the tycoons said, eliminating 2 million jobs and costing $65 billion to $90 billion worth of lost production value. The regulators stood their ground, however.

A followup study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology belied the alarum raised by big business. The cost of compliance was estimated by the MIT study at a mere $335 million. More important, the study found that 11,300 workers who would have been expected to contract cancer in the next quarter-century would be spared by the tighter standard.

Similarly, though the Securities and Exchange Commission has few friends on Wall Street, there is no doubt that investors are better protected when they venture into the stock market - thanks to the SEC's diligence. And the Federal Reserve system has contributed to the strength and reliability of our banking institutions.

Nor do the government regulators always just spend money. A 1976 report by the Interstate Commerce Commission showed that the agency netted almost three times as much money as it spend.

This, unfortunately, is the exception rather than the rule. And even where the expense of regulation is probably piddling compared to the benefits attained, cost-effectiveness ratios are hard to calculate.

The price of an agency's paperwork can be determined with exactitude. But it is difficult if not impossible to measure the value of, say an environment cleaned up by pollution controls, or the lives saved by enforcement of strict auto- and industry-safety standards.

What is often lost sight of is the fact that the cost of both ends of the regulatory spectrum is borne by the public, either as taxpayers or as consumers. Taxes are becoming a crushing burden on everyone, but the price of unregulated industry and unenforced or inadequate safety regulations would make the tax bite seem like a bee sting.

The task facing the administration's budget-cutters is not simply to eliminate as many federal regulations as possible, but rather to decide which rules are really in the public interest and which are either outmoded or oppressive and should be junked.

The Carter administration has already made some progress in this area. Case in point: The airline industry was one that fit the characterization of a recent Library of Congress study, which said the regulatory process often "tends to maintain monopolies when they are no longer justified." Airline fares have now been essentially deregulated. It's too soon to tell whether the industry will be better served by competition, but there's no doubt at all that the savings to consumers have been enormous.

So the real is to elimate waste and suffocating paperwork without sacrificing the important benefits to the public that the agencies were originally set up to achieve. In short, the regulatory agencies must be made leaner and meaner. It'll be a tough job, but the administration has few more important ones.