Exaggerating the cost of government action while ignoring its benefits is nothing new. Over a century ago the fiscal conservatives of the time were horrified by the U.S. purchase of Alaska for $7 million, calling it "Seward's Folly." But they may not have been any more spectacularly shortsighted than some of their successors now in power who are busy decrying what they see as "Regulation's Folly."

President Reagan, repeating uncritically the well-known estimate of economic advisers' chairman Murray Weidenbaum, says that the cost of regulation is some $120 billion a year. Vice President George Bush, chairman of the administration's Task Force on Regulatory Relief, concludes with econometric precision that regulation is like a snake with too many heads, that it's an amoeba that keeps growing and that "there's a better way to skin this cat." Weidenbaum has defended his study of regulatory costs by saying: let others do benefit studies. And when James Miller III, then David Stockman's administrator of regulatory affairs, announced last June that the administration had already reduced regulatory costs by $15.5 billion to $18.6 billion, he answered a reporter's query about benefits by lamely saying, "We don't have good benefit estimates."

Well, this just won't do. Imagine the hilarity in the pages of Fortune if someone attacked GM for imposing $60 billion worth of costs on the economy--without mentioning that it also produced 4 million cars. These four cost-estimaters were previously zealous advocates of an anti-public health school of thought. But now they are the government, and they should represent the victims of marketplace abuse as well as business.

Since they won't, let me marshal some of the best studies to measure the costs of not regulating in five specific areas:

* Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The National Cancer Institute estimates that workplace inhalation of asbestos fiber alone will cause 2.5 million premature cancer deaths over the next 35 years, or some 67,000 a year. Studies have shown a clear correlation between plants subjected to OSHA inspections and declining injury and fatality rates there. Extrapolating from an analysis performed by Robert Stewart Smith of Cornell, the annual benefits are over $5 billion a year.

* Environmental Protection Agency. Studies by two teams of economists estimate that the attainment of Clean Air Act goals for sulphur dioxide and Total Suspended Particulates would reduce the mortality rate by 7 percent, saving 125,000 lives per year for a $53.8 billion annual benefit. Air pollution indexes for major cities have already shown a sharp improvement in air quality. A synthesis of the best studies of water pollution control indicates that $12.3 billion could be saved from reduced pollution by 1985.

* National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Based on a comparison of deaths per mile driven in 1966 and today, federal auto safety regulation has saved the lives of more than 100,000 Americans--and averted millions of injuries. "Automatic restraints" on all cars would further reduce the yearly death and injury toll by 9,000 and 63,000 respectively; economist William Nordhaus estimates that the net benefit of such a technology in 1982-1985 model cars would be $10 billion--but Reagan's NHTSA has withdrawn the standard.

* Food and Drug Administration. The Senate health subcommittee has found that 80 percent of the 30,000 to 100,000 annual fatalities from adverse drug reactions could be eliminated if prescribing doctors were better informed. The FDA's ban on chlorofluorocarbons from aerosol propellants will prevent 31,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer annually. A recent doctoral thesis pegged the benefits of eliminating ineffective and dangerous drugs-- the Thalidomides and Panalbas--at $300 million annually.

* Consumer Product Safety Commission. The agency's standard for cribs has reduced by half the number of infant deaths due to strangulation. Child-resistant bottle caps reduced poisonings treated by emergency rooms by 230,000 between 1973 and 1979, saving the lives of 200 to 300 children under the age of 5.

For those interested in aggregating rough data, the best benefits estimate for just these five health/safety agencies is $37.1 billion in 1978 or $5.7 billion more than Weidenbaum's estimate of $31.4 billion in costs. The projections for 1985, made before the Reagan administration took office, were that $94.1 billion would be saved in injuries avoided and lives saved. (The savings are detailed in a study I did with Norman Waitzman called "Business War on the Law: The Benefits of Health/Safety Law Enforcement.")

Instead of playing a game of ideological arithmetic, the people in this administration who reflexively attack regulation should begin to acknowledge the very real successes of health amd safety law enforcement and also try to do a better job of quantifying its benefits. Otherwise, the Republican program will come to be regarded not so much as anti-regulatory but, for example, as pro-cancer, and its intended goal not so much regulatory "relief" as regulatory abolition.