THERE HAS BEEN a good deal of talk around the country in recent years about the "stifling hand of government regulation." You hear it particularly when business get together. The government is too big and tries to do too much, the argument goes, and the nation would be better off if it stopped trying to run so large a part of the economy.

We happen to think there is something to this argument. So we watched with considerable interest the parade of witnesses testifying recently on proposals to cut back government's role in one part of the economy by deregulating the airline industry.The idea behind these proposals is to remove that "stifling hand" in stages and introduce the airlines gradually to the world of open competition known as "free enterprises." This would be accomplished, primarily, by giving airlines more freedom to set fares and to start and stop service on individual routes.

You might think that corporations that are regulated in infinite detail, as are the airlines, would leap at this opportunity. But that is not the way it was. Substantial reduction of government regulation was supported by - would you believe it? - the executive branch of the government. It was opposed by - you guessed it - almost all of the airlines, their banks and the airline labor unions.

Now that tells you something about all the talk concerning government regulation. At least it tells you what it means in relation to this particular industry, and we suspect it means the same thing elsewhere. What almost all the airline spokesmen said they really want, once you strip out the rhetroic, is less government regulation of the kind they don't like and at least as much as they now have of the kind they do like. In other words, they want a system of "guided free enterprise" in which government guides them in the way they want to go, protects them from the risks of open competition and continues to let them blame its regulations for their problems.

This desire for a system of government regulation that permits you to be successful and keeps you from being unsuccessful is rather common these days. Even the farmers, that last bastion of staunch individualism if you believe their speeches, favor government programs that, in the words of one agricultural expert, "capitalize the upwings and socialize the downswings." Risk-taking has become something to be avoided if at all possible, and the airlines are merely seeking to stay with the crowd.

We do not intend to argue now the merits of deregulation. Suffice it to say that we believe the problems raised by its opponents, although substantial, can be solved through a carefully planned reduction of the role of government. But we must concede that the airline spokesmen have done their work well. Sen. Barry Goldwater, the great champion of free enterprise, has said that the case for deregulation has not been made. Sen. Howard Cannon says he is impressed because "substantially all the people with great expertise in the area . . . are opposed." That, we might add, is not surprising, since almost all of the those with great expertise are a part of the industry.

For these senators and others who are opposed to present proposals, we would like to offer a radical suggestion. If you don't want to deregulate the airlines, how about having future regulation controlled by passengers? Why not tell the Civil Aeronautics Board to focus not on what the airlines want or say they need but on what passengers want? Why not get rid of overbooking, excess capacity, non-price competition, inefficient companies and government-approved fares that permit management to pass on to consumers the results of their financial and operating mistakes? In other words, if airlines are too fragile to survive in a free enterprise system, why not really regulate them? We suspect that, confronted with such an alternative, the airlines would find the deregulation proposals not nearly so frightening.