NEARLY every article, congressional hearing and business speech on federal regulation prominently refers to Murry Weidenbaum's study of the aggregate costs of regulation. Time magazine has said that Weidenbaum's "is one of the most widely accepted estimates," and General Motors chairman Thomas A. Murphy cites his results to argue for a 10 percent cut in federal regulation.

An economist and former Treasury official in the Nixon administration, Weidenbaum did a study of the administrative and compliance costs of 55 major regulatory agencies. By 1979, he estimated the administrative costs at $4.8 billion; then, largely by using a multiplier of 20, he arrived at the compliance figure of $97.9 billion -- for a total cost of over $102.7 billion. "While these estimates of regulatory costs must be regarded as tentative," he demurs, "I submit that any error is in the direction of understatement." It turns out that he has much to be modest about.

His emphasis on costs and his neglect of benefits is about as sophisticated as attacking GM for costing shareholders $52 billion a year -- and neglecting to mention that it also produces $55 billion a year in revenues.

In testimony and speeches, Weidenbaum mostly attacks health and safety regulation, which comprises only about one-third of his aggregate total; the other two-thirds are the costs of classic cartel regulation and federal paperwork, most of which relates to IRS forms, not health and safety.

His conclusion that federal safety standards add $666 to the price of a new car is based on a recalculation of Bureau of Labor Statistics data that BLS officials have said is invalid. A National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study in 1976 asked automakers how much higher prices were as a result of federal safety standards. The answer: $250 per car, not $666.

Weidenbaum also confuses a mere shift in costs with new costs. If worker disease and injury decline, costs involuntarily borne by workers will now be borne involuntarily by owners. A recent Library of Congress report criticizes Weidenbaum because "there are unresolved problems of double-counting and inaccurate addition," because his paperwork costs to corporations include such "burdens" as filling out forms for federal contracts, subsidies and loans, and because his 1:20 multiplier figure -- which is how he gets up to $100-plus billion -- is largely conjectural. This September 1978 analysis concludes that his study has "enough questionable components to make the totals arrived at suspect and of doubtful validity."

Thus, Weidenbaum's work, like the Queen's sentencing of Alice, seems based on verdict first, evidence later. Which is understandable when you realize that he is less an independent economist than a cheerleader and strategist for business. His organization, the Center for the Study of American Business, is funded by business grants.