TODAY AS in the past, the arguments for "states rights" and "state sovereignty," although often confused, remain separate and unequal. The states rights tradition in this country is alive and well, legitimately identified with causes and groups that cut across the spectrum of political opinion and unite only on one underlying premise: that, as matters stand, their specific interests are protected more effectively by state than federal authority. As for "state sovereignty," as Stanford Law School constitutionalist Gerald Gunther points out, "it was an honorable American tradition. Unfortunately, it lost."

Speaking off the cuff to the governors in their White House meeting the other week, however, President Reagan came perilously close to endorsing the notion while sounding one of his familiar campaign themes with accustomed exuberance. It came out this way: "I have believed for a long time, until I've become almost a Johnny-one-note on it, that a great many of our problems are because, from the federal level, there has been a concerted attempt, whether they realized what they were doing or not, to change the basic form of our government, which is that we are a federation of sovereign states," (we've added the italics) "and they've tried to make the states administrative districts of the federal government. . . ."

Mr. Reagan's last words contain the kernel of an unexceptionable states rights argument. But if the president holds to his phrase about being "a federation of sovereign states," rather than rejecting it as inadvertent hyperbole, then he is seriously mistaken. This is not "a federation of sovereign states." Neither is it a unitary nation like many in the world. It has always been, as the president knows only too well, a federal union in which specific constitutional authority has been delicately dispersed and forever disputed. As for the sovereignty of people as expressed through the national government, this question was resolved under the leadership of an earlier Republican president named Lincoln, who had a somewhat healthy respect for federal power.

In fairness, what Mr. Reagan appeared to be defending to the governors, judging his remarks in context, was little more than the traditional conception of states rights. He stated especially his desire "to turn many programs totally back to you [the governors] for administration and turn back the sources to pay for them." To achieve this goal, however, the president undoubtedly has recognized a paradox of governing familiar to his predecessors since the days of Jefferson and Jackson: that to reduce national authority, one must exercise the powers of the presidency to the hilt. The results are unpredictable, but we offer our cautious best wishes in the attempt, if only in order to restore a healthier balance of power in the overall federal system. States Rights, si!; State Sovereignty, no! .