Hundreds of American corporations are buying up shares of their own stock in the open market, usually with the explanation that stock prices are so low these days that "we consider the repurchase of our shares an excellent investment."

The repurchase programs are probably sound enough. But each time I read about one, I wonder. What would happen if a corporation succeeded in buying up all its own shares?

Can an inhuman corporation own itself? How would that work? If there were no humans stockholders clamoring for dividends on their investment, what would the company do with its profits - just keep piling them up until it owned the whole country?

What brings these questions to mind again is the publication of a recent news story by staff writer Spencer Rich. It indicated that governments can also get themselves into some strange predicaments when trends are permitted to run their full course

Rich's story began with the words, "The federal government, which has 28 million persons on its official civilian payroll, actually pays the salaries of at least 3 million to 4 million more, according to data gathered by The Washington Post."

These figures do not include military personnel, nor do they include "the approximately 50 million people being supported by federal welfare, Social Security, pensions or public service job programs."

They include only those performing some civilian service for which the government is footing the bill. The number of people in this category is certainly more than 6 million, perhaps more than 7 million - but the federal government "has only the vaguest idea of how many such workers there are."

Rich's story went on to describe the year-by-year upswing in the number of paychecks being issued by the federal government and by the many state and local governments that are Big Brother's busy little helpers in shoveling out cash. State and local government payrolls, we learned from Rich, now stand at more than 12 million.

There was a clear inference in Rich's statistics that if the trend continues for another decade or two, private industry may become extinct. In due course, just about everybody will be getting a check from the government.

The last holdout might be, for example, a small Mom-and-Pop grocery store in Falmouth, Ky. or Fergus Falls, Minn. Eventually Pop would die and his widow would be left to keep private enterprise alive by herself.

Meanwhile our various government entities would be looking for new ways to raise the revenue needed to support all the people getting government handouts.

Nobody would believe Mom when she protested that one little grocery store can't generate enough cash to carry 100 million government paychecks. So IRS would eventually have to shut down Mom's store for nonpayment of taxes, and Mom would go on welfare. At that point, everybody would be living off the government, and the government would have to begin living off its own dependents.

It would accomplish this by raising its income tax rate to 110 percent. If somebody was getting $15,000 a year from the government, he would pay $16,500 a year in taxes.

Everybody would be happy. The extra 10 percent would pay for the clerical work, bookkeeping and postage needed to issue and distribute all those checks. The increased revenues would mean an end to government deficits. And there would be no more low income families. If $15,000 wasn't enough for a family, the government could raise its payment to $20,000. Or $25,000. Who would care? Bigger handouts would bring in bigger tax revenues.

There may be several small flaws in this procedure, but I refuse to get bogged down in petty details. The trend toward big government and big spending is clear. Everybody favours it because it promises that anybody who doesn't have money for food or rent after paying out 110 percent of his income in taxes could obtain an increase in his government allotment. Here, at last, would be the ultimate in self-government.

Frankly, I think the plan will work so well that we will be able to achieve true equality for the first time in our history. Instead of limiting ourselves to federal programs for the underprivileged, we may even be able to afford a few designed to help the overprivileged. Perphaps we could begin with a drug rehabilition program for White House personnel.