HOWEVER ITS labeled-President Carter this week called it the "war on waste and fraud"-a serious effort to make federal programs more productive is worthwhile any time and doubly welcome now. Fraud and other illegal acts may be draining off billions of dollars; nobody knows how much is being squandered, legally, through cumbersome laws and rules that impose extra costs, burdens and inefficiencies. On Wednesday, Mr. Carter cited a welfare system in one state that "eats up three billion pieces of paper each year and a thousand different forms." Anyone can come up with more examples of his own.

Little is likely to be gained, though, if the problem is described, much less approached, superficially as a battle against abstract "waste," "red tape" or "paper-work." Those laws and rules all come from somewhere; it's the agencies, subcommittees, interests, constituents, commitments, rivalries, habits and so on that must be dealt with in a serious "war on waste."

The task is harder because it involves so many skirmishes. Eliminating a project or rule that any cluster of lawmakers and lobbyists cares about can mean spending a lot of political capital for unspectacular operating gains.Mangers seldom get big headlines when they do abolish some forms or pull programs together-as this administration has done. And given Mr. Carter's overall agenda, it's easy to see why he has not rushed headling into major frays such as the fierce fight between the Departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development over control of urban economic-development aid.

The more one digs into these matters, too, the less petty the objections to change tend to become. Official nit-picking is hardly the major reason why welfare, housing aid or you-name-it is so burdened with administrative overhead. Some of those legalities are meant to ward off illegalities. Others reflect major, hard-won statements of national purpose or allocations of responsibility among levels of government. Such judgments are not easily modified-and often should not be.

Even so, Mr. Carter should persevere and indeed should enlarge this fight. The National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures are urging the administration to lead a major overhaul of the whole tangled system of federal aid. The two groups' themes-program consolidation, easing of federal rules and the like-are hardly novel. What is new and promising is the atmosphere. The state officials maintain that the economic pressures for austerity, plus public impatience with unproductive government, make far-reaching changes both more necessary and politically more rewarding than in the past. We think they're right.

Surely Mr. Carter has little to lose by forcing the champions of each program to choose between cutting overhead and cutting services. The real trick is showing the public clearly what those choices are. If the forces of inertia and possessiveness are kept in the spotlight, they will be less likely to prevail.