IN A MOMENT of sentimental self-indulgence, I went back to this newspaper's library the other day and pulled out one of my old clippings, one of the very first stories I wrote as a reporter for the Washington Post.

It began:

"The graying members of the Federal Trade Commission, an agency founded in 1914 to protect the little guy, were confronted yesterday by Nader's raiders, a group of modish young law students who accused the FTC of having 'tired blood.'"

That was in November 1968, and beyond my personal nostalgia, the story marked the beginning of something new in the life of Washington. This was the first act in what became a popular theatrical -- plain citizens assailing the government for its failures, demanding access to the decision-making, holding up a bright torch for something they called "public-interest."

These mere "kids" who confronted the FTC that day -- recruited by Ralph Nader for a summer of idealism -- had scrambled inquisitively around the FTC building on Pennsylvnia Avenue, awakening the slumbering bureaucrats, asking hard questions about what the FTC did to protect consumers and, most outrageously, expecting answers. The FTC wasn't used to that.

Neither were other federal agencies and departments. They served clients of specific definition, but no one was at the bargaining table speaking for the "public." Nadar's imagination created a new genre of citizen action -- task force studies on water pollution, mine safety, nutrition, nursing homes, auto safety, meat inspection and so forth. Citizen reformers made good copy, but they won big headlines mainly because they were right about the government filures, right about the corporate abuses. Under Nixon and his successors, the FTC became a kind of bureaucratic Lazarus, revived and energized by the criticism, renewing the original spirit of Progressive reform which launched the agency nearly 70 years ago.

Now we are at a kind of ending in the life of Washington. Congress responds now to different torches -- the political blowtorches held by an array of business and professional groups -- and is in a kind of frenzy to castrate the FTC.

"It's okay to have an FTC that's a charade," Nadar observed, "but if it starts getting serious, cut its neck off. That's America."

Reform, counter-reform. This is a fairly constant rhythm in American political life, and now we are witnessing thecounter-reformation of regulatory government.Enough is enough, says Congress. We wanted an FTC that would make consumers feel good but not one that would aggravate the doctors and dentists, the funeral directos, the insurance companies, the cereal makers, the TV networks, the oil majors and so on.

The FTC got all these economic interests mad -- all at once -- and now they are ganging up to get even. The smart opinion around town blames Michael Pertschuk, the FTC chairman, for leading with his chin, pushing inflammatory issues in an era when the fires of reform already were chilled. The smart opinion is undoubtably right, but that dodges the fundamental point about what changed in American politics. To invoke an infelicitous simile, blaming Persshuk or Nadar is like blaming the Ice Age on the hairy mammoth.

If I wished to be nasty with the reformers, I would say that they are modern victims of the "goo-goo illusion." Instead, I will say that their idealism has once again exposed a central fallacy of American democracy -- the inequitable equation of political expression and intensity which asserts itself again and again in our history. The cruelest fact in our national experience is that democracy does not function as Mr. Jefferson supposed it would, as Ralph Nader truly believed was possible a decade ago.

The "goo-goo" label -- a pejorative derived from "good government" -- was coined in the first Progressive Era, when middle-class reformers spawned, the FTC, federal food and drug laws, meat inspection, trust-busting and other federal regulatory powers. The central tenet of the Progressives, which Nader revived and activated, was that ordinary citizens could organize in the public interest, could reform the processes of government to insure fairness, could clean up corruption at City Hall and curb corporate abuses.

It was -- and is -- an Augean stable. The most telling evidence of the failure of that earlier Progressivism was the contemporary one launched by Nader. The modern "public interest" reformers are working on the same agenda of abuses, the same patterns of corruption, of concentrated and irresponsible corporate power, of atrophied government which serves "the interests" and not the "public."

Ah, but who is the "public" and who is an "interest"? That is the democratic fallacy, the illusion which defeats reform. For we are all, each of us, both "public" and "interest." Or at least we will claim to be when addressing our government. The most cynical and greed-consumed lobbyist will identify a broad "public" purpose in his modest tax amendment that means a fortune to his client. The funeral directors lobbying against FTC reform aimed at price-gouging will denounce the general malady of "over-regulation." And so on, across the spectrum of "special interests" aggravated by the reformers.

Then who speaks for the "public interest"? In the beginning, it was said that our elected representatives, the wise lawmakers, would do this, aggregating and balancing the many voices of competing interests. Any intelligent observer who has watched Congress at length or a state legislature in action has to notice that our wise lawmakers resemble, more than occasionally, frightened animals being driven through

A legislator, local or state or national, will have his season of "public" issues, but the job does not teach a person to respond to Mr. Jefferson's ideals or Mr. Nader's diffuse and voiceless "public." Legislative life conditions one to respond to physical stimuli -- a lot of heat from the hometown funeral directors, a kick in the rump from the bankers' association, a carrot of campaign money from the doctors and dentists, a rap on the snout from the farmers.

For a few seasons, the Congress listened to Nader mainly because he frightened them. Mostly with media mirrors, Nader convinced the mules that he had a bigger stick than the bankers or the insurance companies -- the electoral wrath of this aroused public. This was probably true for a few years, but it was not so unpredictable that the counter-reform "interests" would pick up new, bigger sticks and find ways to stampede the herd in their way. Generally speaking, this is what happened -- the "interests" are now organized with new sophistication, more money for needy candidates, more adroitness for vote-trading alliances.

The ideological cover story of this season of reaction -- the anti-regulatory line promoted by the Chamber of Commerce and "new right" economists -- is an intellectual joke, since much of what the FTC seeks to accomplish is more competition in the marketplace instead of monopoly price-fixing. Where are the "free market" advocates who are so eloquent on decontrolling oil prices and so silent on decontrolling doctors' fees or realtors' commissions?

Never mind. The equation of imbalanced interest is not an ideological question. It works like this: Each of us has a theoretical interest, for example, in price-gouging by undertakers since, presumably, all of us will someday be a consumer of their services. We can all sit around and agree that there is something wrong there. We might even applaud lightly when a Pertschuk or Nader exposes abuses and demands reform.

But none of us -- not even when we are taken collectively as the "public interest" -- cares as intensely about this matter as the funeral directors. It is, after all, their livelihood. In a democracy, they are entitled to defend it.Indeed, they are expected to defend it.

So we who are the mythical "public" care some about funeral prices, a little at least. But the funeral home operators care a lot. The public cares about price-fixing by realtors or doctors, but the doctors and realtors care desperately. Who can blame them? Indeed, the expression of self-interest is as much embedded in our democtractic machinery as the devotion to publich interests. If you believe in democracy, as I do, you cannot praise one and dismiss the other. Nevertheless, observing the long roll of American political history, including the current Congress, one is bound to conclude that public decision-making is grossly unbalanced by the forces. The "public interest" sounds like a faint murmur beside the clamoring of "special interests."

Nader, I can report, is not disillusioned. He knows, for instance, that his reform agenda did change the way Washington works -- opening the decision process to public views, forcing citizen complaints into the policy debates. He also knows, as probably he always did, that citizen groups can go only so far on the merits of their cases. They cannot proceed further without real exonomic power behind them.

Political power follows economic power. That is a hoary truism which "goo-goos" try to circumvent, but it does endure and, sooner or later, it usually prevails.