There is a certain ethnocentric charm in the American punishing their own companies for doing things like bribing foreign commercial officals for business. The assumption is that since we have free-market, competitive capitalism here, the same kind of capitalism should flourish everywhere.

It does not; and while that may not be a matter of great moment when it comes to imported Japanese cameras (especially now when it appears the Germans have excelled the Sons of Nikon), it is very serious in the matter of oil. We are being harmed by the cartel of oil-exporting nations and the great oil corporations which have effectively slipped out of American control and become the agents of these foreign powers.

The only response to a producer monopoly is what the economists call monopsony, which isn't a Japanese radio but a market situation in which there is only one buyer. In self defense, all the oil imported into the United States must be bought and brought into the country by one office.

That is the only way we can prevent ourselves from being whipsawed into higher and higher prices. (In the future, either by bringing huge new supplies onto the market or dramatically cutting oil usage, we can force price moderation on OPEC, but that's not about to happen soon.)

The oil industry itself, back in the days before it had capitulated and become a stooge for OPEC, reached the same conclusion. Its top spokesman and prestige figure, the international lawyer and lobbyist John J. McCloy, brought the matter up with President Kennedy in 1961. McCloy, writes Anthony Sampson, "warned Kennedy about the possible consequences of OPEC: if OPEC were to succeed in jount action, he said, it might be necessary for the oil companies on their side to be given authority for collective bargaining. Kennedy 'right then and there' aranged for McCloy to see his brother Robert, the Attorney General, to whom McCloy repeated the warning. Robert Kennedy assured him that if and when the companies contemplated joint action, he would be glad to discuss the possibility. . . The principle was established: that for the sake of security of oil supplies and for reasons of foreign policy, the antitrust laws would be waived. . ." ("The Seven Sisters," Bantam, $2.95.)

The oil industry's insistence that this was the only way it could hope to deal successfully with OPEC wasn't a one-time thing. This has been a repeatedly asserted position, and in 1971 the Justice Department again gave formal permission for the oil companies to act in concert when negotiating with the organization of producer nations. By then, however, the companies were well on their way to being overwhelmed and never were able to speak with a single effective voice.

In the 1980s, they are independent in name only and no longer have any financial reason to oppose price increases. Many of the increases are highly advantageous because they do produce windfall profits of enormous size, windfalls which, ironically will not be covered by the new tax if and when it is ever passed.

Under the present system, the companies have long-term, fixed-price contracts from the producer nations for large quantities of oil. Thus they've been buying oil from the Saudis at around $22 a barrel, and when the world price of oil suddenly jumps, they can turn and sell that same oil for $40 a barrel.

Under such a system, the companies have little incentive to fight for lower prices. Moreover, their dependency on the OPEC nations for oil has made them catspaw of the producing countries, so the old McCloy approach would no longer work.

For some years, Maurice Adelman, a distinguished oil economist at MIT, has been suggesting a unified government purchasing office for imported oil. Whether the government would be able to make such an office work is by no means clear. Given the performance of the Department of Energy to date, we might end up being incapable of buying any oil. Obviously such an office would have to be run by people with an oil company background and oil company expertise, which might also entail oil company loyalties.

Such an office could murder small, independent refiners and distributers here. It would, of necessity, have to work in considerable secrecy, which would incubate much suspcion and make oversight very difficult. But on the other hand we can't go on forever lettin our national devotion to anti-trust and free-marketism shred us internationally.