THANKS TO THE quick action of Gov. John Dalton, the citizens of Virginia have had a pre-Christmas preview of what budget cutting is all about. The governor, citing the Reagan presidential victory as a mandate from voters to get "government out of their pocketbooks," withdrew his state from the developmental disabilities program. Under this program, the federal government provides close to $1 million to Virginia for group homes and other specialized services for mentally retarded and disabled children and adults.

As many of our readers pointed out in letters to the paper, this action will cause great hardship for many handicapped persons and their families. Some also objected that what voters had wanted was to cut "welfare" spending, not benefits for the handicapped. There is, however, a message in this. Cutting government spending touches not just "them," the poor, but all of us.

Consider for a minute what the federal government buys with the $616 billion or so it will spend this year. About 23 percent goes for our common defense. Another 36 percent goes for Social Security, federal and other pensions, veterans' benefits and related medical coverage -- one or another of which almost all of us will receive. Interest payments to all holders of government bonds and notes takes another 11 percent. Only 1.3 percent of the federal budget goes to what most people mean by "welfare," cash payments to about 3 million needy families, and another 1.6 percent to food stamps for 20 million of the poor. In fact, welfare costs are now such a small part of the federal budget that it would almost be worth cutting them out entirely in order to be rid of this convenient scapegoat -- were it not for the likely disastrous effect on the lives of some 7 million children, effects we somehow doubt anyone would really relish.

If big bucks are to be saved, it comes down to cutting out benefits for all of us -- not just highways, dams, airport subsidies, agricultural and maritime supports, downtown renovations and so forth -- but a lot of things that fall in the category of "social services." These include programs to curb child abuse -- a problem far from limited to the poor -- and to track down fathers who skip out on their child support and alimony payments -- most of these aren't poor at all -- and subsidized loans for the children of middle-class parents who forgot somehow to stash away the $10,000 a year it now can take for a college education. Even the Medicaid program for the needy spends the big bulk of its dollars not on caring for slum kids with runny noses, but on nursing homes and other institutional care, not just for the poor, but for people who find themselves outliving their resources and without relatives delighted to assume the cost and responsibility of their care.

Yes, the country can and should run its social programs better. But as OMB Director-designate David Stockman has noted, waste-cutting "will hardly make a dent" in the budget problem. And reducing waste will take not only time but a willingness to invest up-front money in better managerial controls. If the public has made a decision to cut public spending and investment, it should be quite clear about what this means: everyone will be giving up things that make the particular world we live in a kinder and more pleasant place.