SEN. JESSE HELMS of North Carolina has provided Congress, in its budget decisions, with a valuable distinction. Cutting the peanut farmers' subsidies is wrong, the senator explained, because those subsidies affect people--that is, as he felicitously put it in the farm bill debate, "human beings."

In contrast, it is right and necessary to cut food stamps--and Sen. Helms was a vigorous champion of the food stamp cuts. Food stamps, you see, are just little bits of paper with numbers on them.

The senator's reasoning provides a clear and simple guide to public policy. Under the Helms peanut rule, it's desirable to cut school lunches, job training, Social Security benefits and student loans because, as you know, they don't have much to do with human beings. Human beings are, for example, peanut farmers. For them, the most rudimentary sense of social equity demands a crop subsidy. There are other examples of distressed human beings that the senator could cite, such as the tobacco farmers. For them, as the senator has argued many times, social conscience requires a government-operated cartel even tighter than the one enjoyed by the peanut producers.

As a taxpayer, you ought to be proud of the way your government takes care of all these human beings. At least peanuts are good for you, which is more than anyone can say about tobacco. But although all peanuts are edible, the law permits you to eat only those produced within certain assigned quotas. That's the system that generates the rapidly rising prices and intermittent shortages of peanut butter that you may have noticed in recent months. These peanut butter shortages can and do appear when there are plenty of peanuts on the market -- but they aren't quota peanuts.

Sen. Helms has spoken occasionally of the virtues of the free market. Why not let the market go to work on the price of peanut butter? Because--to apply the senator's logic--a falling price for peanuts would threaten the welfare and happiness of human beings, as herein defined.

Peanut butter is highly nutritious. Why not at least use some of those surplus, non-quota peanuts to make it for the schoolchildren whose lunches are being shrunk by the Reagan budget? Answer: That's social engineering. Sen. Helms is interested only in policy that helps human beings.