One president and 50 governors, one U.S. Congress and 50 state legislatures would appreciate it if they could start the new year knowing how much government the people want. People say they want to "get government off our backs" at the same time they demand that the government impose new restrictions on a host of human activities.

Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts pointed up the dilemma confronted by political leaders when he bravely vetoed a bill mandating seat-belt use in Massachusetts. He said he personally was in favor of using seat belts but that people should be allowed to make up their own minds about them and not have government mandating their actions.In New Jersey, outgoing Gov. Jim Florio cast a not-so-gutsy "conditional veto" of a bill that would require school districts to teach that only sexual abstinence is a reliable way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Florio said the state government should let local school boards make such decisions without the intrusion of the state government.

Weld is a Republican and Florio is a Democrat, but decisions on where government should get off our backs and where it should jump on them are more dependent upon the mood of the moment than political labels.

No one talked more about getting government off our backs than Ronald Reagan, but his positions on birth control and abortion advanced government intervention from the workplace into the bedroom. Democrats go in the opposite direction, mandating that the tax dollars of citizens with deep religious and moral convictions against abortion must be made available to provide them for the poor.

The conflict between individual rights and government intervention is universal, as old as history and as new as this week's headlines.

A doctor in Rome implanted fertilized eggs in a 59-year-old English woman. The eggs had been surgically removed from a younger woman and fertilized by the older woman's husband. She gave birth to twins last week. Another woman, age 61, has been made pregnant in the same Roman fertility clinic. Is it any of government's business?

"Women do not have the right to have a child," British Secretary of Health Virginia Bottomley told the BBC. "The child has a right to a suitable home."

Saying a woman doesn't have a right to have a child pushes government intervention to its limit. Who says a 59-year-old woman can't provide a suitable home?

If and when the Congress gets around to tackling health-care reform, there will be a host of issues involving individual rights and government controls that must be resolved. A jury in California last week made the task of the reformers infinitely more difficult. It awarded a verdict of $89 million to the family of a woman with breast cancer who died after her health maintenance organization refused to pay for a costly, experimental procedure that might have saved her life. The HMO was presumed to have deep pockets; $77 million of the total was for punitive damages.

Do we want government to intervene by cutting down the size of jury awards, or do we want government to get off our backs and leave it up to the juries?

Governing would be a great deal easier if presidents and governors knew how much government we want.