SWEDISH citizens voted with their shrinking pocketbooks when they went to the polls last Sunday. Tired of paying the highest taxes in the Western world, they rejected the governing Social Democrats, architects of the country's welfare state. With only 38 percent of the vote, the party experienced its worst defeat since 1928.This widespread disillusionment did not surface in past decades, when cradle-to-grave benefits were a widely shared ideal in the Scandinavian nation. Sweden's unusual experiment in social democracy was supposed to constitute a "third way" between capitalism and communism. But good theory doesn't always translate into good practice. Sweden's social services may be extensive, but they also have become expensive, while quality has declined. Public day-care centers and old-age homes have also experienced a shortage of places. Even Social Democrats reluctantly acknowledge that the welfare state, and the huge tax load required to pay for it, is dragging the country's economy down. Growth has been stagnant for several years, and unemployment is rising. It's time for a course cor rection. Nonsocialist parties promise to cut taxes. They also pledge to give citizens more freedom to choose private alternatives in child care and health care. But lowering taxes will mean scaling back benefits - an enormous task in a society that has come to take so much for granted. Health care, services for the elderly, massive benefits to families - all must be cut. Americans who advocate more government support for families have long pointed to the Swedish system as a model for benefits such as day care and parental leave. But critics of Sweden's style of government argue that the Swedish family has suffered under government control and intrusion. They welcome the prospect of returning greater autonomy to families. As Sweden's vision of political utopia is revised in the months to come, both groups will be watching with interest. The changing political agenda may be only the latest reminder that the price of a free lunch keeps going up.