INFLATION IS leaping upward again, driven by oil prices. This year's inflation rate will be the highest since 1981, in the aftermath of thelast oil crisis. Consumer prices, since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, have been rising at a speed of nearly 10 percent a year -- an intolerable level, if it were to continue. What should be done?

The wisest public policy is to do nothing -- except to stay on the present course, giving top priority to reducing the budget deficit. The surge in oil prices is likely to prove temporary, unless a war should break out in the Persian Gulf.

There is no oil shortage so far. It's anticipation -- the fear of war ahead -- that has been chiefly responsible for the sky-high prices of the past few weeks. As that fear has begun to diminish, prices have begun to drop. The world's boycott of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil is costing it more than 4 million barrels a day, but three-quarters of that has already been replaced by higher production in other countries. The biggest contributor is Saudi Arabia, but there have been substantial increases in Venezuela, the North Sea and many other places. The International Energy Agency concludes that while supplies are a bit too tight for comfort, they remain manageable.

The real costs of this jump in oil-fueled inflation will be, as usual, lower economic growth and, if a recession comes, a more severe one than otherwise. These cycles of inflation cost jobs and erode incomes. There are ways to protect a country's economy from them, and the United States has learned a good deal from the previous oil shocks. But in comparison with the other industrial democracies, this country has done only a mediocre job of protecting itself.

Americans get tired of hearing other countries held up to them as examples, but it is true that the Western Europeans and Japanese will get through this fall with much less of an inflationary jolt in their lives. Their incomes will be eroded less, and fewer of them will lose jobs. Their countries have done more to shield their economies and raise energy efficiency.

One major reason for the poor performance here is the American attitude toward gasoline. A tax on gasoline is still the best way to put some insulation between the American economy and these repeated upheavals in the world oil markets, but most of the country reacts with rage to the thought of even a minor increase in the gas tax.

As for a gas tax large enough to encourage serious conservation and to nudge Americans gently but firmly toward less dependence on foreign oil, they declare themselves ready to lynch any member of Congress audacious enough even to whisper the idea. But in reality motorists will pay, and their only choice is whom to pay. By midwinter gasoline prices might be 40 cents a gallon higher than last July. People will grumble, but they will shrug and comply. Americans can either pay a tax to their own government, and see the money go to public purposes here, or they can pay the foreign oil producers. So far it's been an unambiguous majority in favor of paying the foreign oil producers.