"Would the Clean Air Act have been passed in the form that it was a decade ago if lawmakers hadn't been health-mongered by environmental activists hit-listing the 'dirty dozen' legislators while predicting that a Silent Spring of smoggy horizon?"

Not quite the way I would phrase the debate, but that's how Ben Wattenberg, "the Democrats did it themselves" polemicist, put it on this page ["A Healthy Society, Getting Healthier," March 25].

Wattenberg is not alone in the attempt to revise history in order to make a point. Many would tell you that the Clean Air Act has been tried and found guilty on all counts: primary cause of inflation; major cause of reduced productivity; significant contributor to unemployment; important factor in balance of payments deficit and declining international competitiveness; and, most heinous, the real reason business doesn't have any capital to invest in "reindustrialization."

These are all debatable points. I won't concede any of them. And the prosecution of the Clean Air Act obviously bears the burden of proof.

Wattenberg, however, goes beyond all of these allegations to make another point: Dirty air is good for your health. That is a conclusion one can draw from Wattenberg's argument that there is a direct relationship between recent "findings" of gain in life expectancy and the kind of contamination currently found in our environment.

In 15 years of exposure to this issue, I have never before heard the argument that a more polluted planet is a healthier planet. But, obviously, if there are greater pollution and more pollutants and improved life expectancy, one must conclude that a positive correlation exists.

So much for facetiousness. There is a much more significant and troubling point to the Wattenberg polemic: The contention that absent "good evidence of important health or life expectancy gains due to clean air regulation" there ought to be major relaxation if not outright repeal of the Clean Air Act. Why? Because the act "costs" an alleged $30 billion a year to implement. (According to the Air Quality Commission, it's more likely to be $20 billion and won't reach that until late in the decade.)

If during air pollution alerts, sick kids and old folks were dying on the street; if normally healthy people were suffering from acute respiratory ailments; if people were suffering acute cardiac distress, then, and only then, we should have Wattenberg's "laws and tough ones," according to this reasoning.

That certainly is a clear choice for the American people. A barn-door strategy that only results in an after-the-fact cleanup is clearly an option for Congress (albeit 10 to 100 times more expensive than a preventive regulatory strategy).

Current law is premised on two concepts: first, there is a whole lot we don't know about air pollution, but we have reason to believe that it isn't good for you and that certain sensitive groups in society are especially vulnerable to levels of dirty air that simply don't bother the great majority of Americans.

Second, before air becomes so filthy that draconian cleanup measurements would be needed, we ought to do the best we can with our pollution-control technology and community planning to clean up dirty areas and avoid dirtying up clean areas.

These concepts have met with some success. A lot of cleanup has been purchased. And a great deal of new pollution has been avoided. The auto industry (foreign and domestic) is producing cars that are immensely cleaner than 15 years ago; and, as a bonus, we got lead out of gasoline, out of the air and out of our lungs.

Many cities are now cleaner than ever. Only those with overwhelming growth have failed to keep pace -- but absent the Clean Air Act, the result would have been much worse.

Significant advances in technology have been made. And, in some cases, the new technology has improved productivity and reduced energy costs. So, is this the time to take the pressure off? I think not.

Of course, the Clean Air Act has deficiencies. No statute so far reaching in its effect could be faultless. But I can remind Wattenberg that the test of the Clean Air Act is not as he defines it. It has been something very different, best defined not by "health-mongering environmental activists" (many of whom are more interested in parks than people), but by a U.S. surgeon general in the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Dr. William Stewart, testifying on April 19, 1967, before Sen. Muskie's pollution subcommittee on the health effects of air pollution, summed up that test this way:

"Today, thanks to many advances in protecting people against disease, we are able in the health professions to think about the positive face of health -- the quality of individual living. . . . Being healthy is not being unsick. . . . In controlling air pollution for the benefit of health, we are working toward an environment that is not only safe, but conducive to good living."

Ben Wattenberg -- meet Dr. William Stewart.