It was just about a year ago that President Carter started talking up a storm about "malaise" -- a kind of low-grade, epidemic insanity, as I understood it, that he thought we all had caught. I remember thinking at the time that it was the diagnosis, not the population, that was crazy. But I have changed my mind. This year, I think not only that we are having a well-deserved bout of malaise, but that we would be certifiably crazy not to.

These grim thoughts have been provoked by the sight of life in the national political sandbox over the past few weeks. I have in mind, of course, the riot of all those well-known budget balancers and austerity types jostling and shoving to be first and most lavish and least serious in promising the voters a juicy tax cut. But there were also the who-got-what stories just prior to the congressional recess. Something for this pressure group, something for that, an incautious benefits increase here, a wholly ill-founded subsidy there -- the legislation reads like somebody's will.

I am aware that Congress, more or less honoring the obligations set forth in its commendable budget reforms of a few years ago, has been a good deal less wanton and chaotic in its dispensations than it used to be. Now at least there are some limits and there is a recognition that expenditures and receipts are not wholly unrelated. But within its self-imposed confines, and responding to its presidential candidates, Congress is still -- perhaps more than ever -- paying shut-up money to the voters. You could call it something nicer, like "tribute," or something less nice, like "extortion," but this is essentially the relationship that has developed between the public and its elected representatives in both the legislature and the higher reaches of the executive branch.

A friend of mine at the Labor Department was telling me the other day, in a matter-of-fact, unexcited voice, how there were several legislature measures the more responsible souls in government would like to see enacted that would achieve a number of much-desired economic goals, but that they wouldn't dream of trying to get such legislation introduced. And why not? Because, my friend explained (and I have heard the same from others), the goodie-machine on the Hill is so strong and the capacity to resist so weak that opening up an old statute for improvements is now too risky. The thing comes back from Congress in a Santa Claus suit, a bagful of special elf-made favors slung over its shoulder, and you are worse off than before. The new Washington wisdom is to let bad enough alone.

There is a school that holds that all this is the logical consequence of various "reforms" of congressional procedure and campaign-financing law. The theory is that loose discipline within Congress and the rise of the political-action-committee lobbying techniques and so forth have brought us to our present wallow in a mud bath of special favors and gratification. But I don't believe it. The reforms are merely an accessory after the fact. Then whose fault is it? The public blames our condition on the politicians and the politicians (by implication) blame it on the public, and I think both are right -- but that the public is ever so much righter. The political folks invite extortion and they also invite the contempt they inevitably get from those who are so successfully putting the arm on them.

When I say the politicians blame the people, what I have in mind is that phrase that is the death knell for restrained or reasonable actions of any kind: "before the electon." Politicians love talk about "the American people"; it is their most sonorously articulated phrase. But what they generally mean by "the American people" is Idiots, Inc., a vast population they discern of dumb and greedy citizens who need regularly to be bought off and who are simply incapable of the act of imagination required to make a short-term personal sacrifice for a long-term community gain. The politicians are not exactly subtle about this, or no more subtle, anyway, than adults who ostentatiously S-P-E-L-L their secrets in the presence of pre-literate children.

But the voters are not kids and they are neither greedy nor dumb, and an unfortunately large number of them can read. Last winter, to the amazement of those who thought otherwise, many Iowa farmers let it be known that they would countenance the proposed grain-sales embargo against the Soviets on the ground that it would be a nationally honorable and dignified and useful thing to do. And there are innumerable like examples. But (witness the farmers' later change of heart) just as soon as the public sees yet again that the politicians aren't serious or constant, that they don't have the guts to see their policies through if the heat gets too high or the polls drop too low, well, then, naturally the public gets off its nobility kick. Everyone becomes just a little more rapacious and mean-minded.

And what else would you expect? Sometimes it seems as though our political leaders have no consistency, no coherence, no staying power, no theory that puts it all together -- only ambition and anxiety. The economists will tell you that someone, lots of someones, are going to have to hurt before we can make even rudimentary progress toward stability in this country. We hail it as "courage" in a politician when he calls on some group other than our own, whether it is, to make the sacrifices, yet fight like tigers when he looks our way. But that is because of a political default. When policy doesn't last between newspaper editions, we know it's not serious. We know you don't get a big tax cut, a big increase in defense spending and a balanced budget all at once. We know they don't mean it. So we start agitating to get our hunk of whatever it is they are giving away at the stand on the corner.

Nothing is proof against this. I note that even the interesting and briefly serious-seeming idea of "reindustrializing" the country is now being reinterpreted by some to mean a kind of new political payoff to everyone's old constituencies. The men at the top merely sigh and explain that the public won't accept the really hard things required -- at least not before the election. Why don't they try us?