God Bless free enterprise, system divine, Stand behind it and guide it As long as the profits are mine. Dear old Wall Street may she flourish, Corporations may they grow, God bless free enterprise, the status quo. -- Parlor protest song of the 1950s, to the tune of "God Bless America."

BEING IDEOLOGICALLY PURE has it drawbacks. It can force you into corners of consistency in which you end up looking ignorant, or greedy, or heartless or, worst of all, inconsistent. In the case of the Reagan administration's decision to vote against the World Health Organization's code for ethical marketing practices of infant formula, world opinion will doubtless check all of the above. By voting against the code, the Reagan administration is telling the world that it cares more about unfettered free enterprise than the lives of hundreds of thousands and, by some counts, millions of babies in Third World countries.

For a president who is adamantly against abortion because he believes it is the taking of a human life, this infant formula controversy ought to be an ideological nightmare. At issue in the controversy are the marketing practices of infant formula manufacturers who responded to a declining birth rate in the West and a shift back to breastfeeding by turning toward Third World countries for customers. That is in the best free enterprise tradition. And, it now appears, that in the best free enterprise tradition, these manufacturers used every trick in the book to peddle infant formulas -- free samples to physicians and nurses, fees to people who would recommend the products, and sending nurses and non-nurses dressed in white into maternity wards and villages to sell the formulas to impoverished, undernourished and often illiterate women who otherwise would have used breastmilk.

Babies were deprived of the immunities breastmilk provides. Formula was mixed with contaminated water, bottles and nipples weren't sterilized or refrigerated. To save money, mothers would dilute the formula excessively, leading to malnourishment of the infant.

The cost has been staggering. Pediatrician Stephen C. Joseph, the highest ranking health professional at the Agency for International Development, told a press conference Monday that some 10 million infants die each year in developing countries. He said "the best available estimates ascribe up to one million of these infant deaths to diarrhea and under-nutrition associated with artificial formula feeding." Joseph and Eugene N. Babb, AID's deputy assistant administrator for food and nutrition, have threatened to resign if the administration abandons U.S. support of the code and votes against it at the WHO meeting in Geneva. It is nice to know that there are still men of principle around.

The code is recommendatory, meaning that it is non-binding and up to each country to enforce within the framework of its own laws. Nevertheless, the administration, in announcing its position, raised a sandstorm of antitrust and First Amendment objections to it and said, moreover, that there was no proven connection between infant health and the marketing of formulas.

There is enough of a connection to satisfy Joseph, Babb, and the health representatives of 156 other governments, all of whom are expected to vote for the code, but it seems that the Reagan administration has adopted selective standards of proof when it comes to the welfare of children. At his March 6 press conference, Reagan reaserted his belief that abortion was the taking of a child's life, and he announced that he was backing a so-called "Human Life Bill" that would ban abortion by declaring that human life exists from the moment of conception.

In the absense of proof that it doesn't, he argued, we should assume it does. " . . . If there was some question, if you found a body on the street and you didn't know whether it was dead or alive and not start shoveling dirt on it? This is what I feel about the others."

Everything we know about nutrition, illiteracy and contaminated water in Third World countries points to the inescapable conclusion that formula manufacturers might as well be selling poison to some of these mothers to feed their children. The evidence is persuasive enough for the world health and scientific community and most if not every other country in the world. It's persuasive enough for members of Congress from both parties. But it's not persuasive enough for the Reagan administration to lend its weight to a code that would enforce responsible marketing practices by American corporations doing business abroad. Even though the lives rations doing business abroad. Even though the lives of hundreds of thousands of children are involved, the Reagan administration is not about to take any chances in its crusade against government regulation. As the Heritage Foundation backgrounder on the code concluded, it is "politically dangerous, for it would set a precedence (sic) for subsequent regulation of industry in other areas as well." The Reagan administration may not be consistent when it comes to the welfare of children, but it is ideologically pure when it comes to the welfare of business.

Free enterprises has struck again.