THE ECONOMIST Herbert Stein was noted for a trait always in short supply in Washington: approaching tough issues by weighing the arguments on each side while genuinely trying to get at the truth of the matter. That this characteristic was so often remarked on both during his lifetime and in his obituaries indicates how rare it is in the world of public affairs, and how diminished it is by his death this week at age 83.

In the Nixon and Ford administrations, Mr. Stein was a member and then chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers. In those jobs, as in his teaching and think-tank positions before and after -- and especially in his newspaper columns -- he took a refreshingly unpredictable approach to the kind of issues on which one generally had only to hear a person's name and affiliation to know where he stood.

Although he wrote an article awhile back titled "Why I Am a Republican," Mr. Stein was not one for doctrine. "We should be candid about our choices here," he wrote in early 1998, in a fairly representative analysis that was not exactly a Republican sound bite. "Those who want to eliminate or substantially reduce our prospective small surpluses should admit that in so doing they are impairing the incomes of our children and grandchildren. They should not act as if there was some excess income that could be given away without hurting anyone."

There isn't much of a payoff in this city for disinterested (and in Mr. Stein's case generally witty) thinking, which may account for its scarcity. Better to be positioned to serve a particular interest, provide "balance" for some ecumenical lobby shop or dispense instant categorical wisdom when the media call. And above all, never preface your conclusions, as Herb Stein did his in a Wall Street Journal piece last month: "Here are my own views, which I recognize may be wrong."