It has been my experience, accumulated over some years, not to mention some expense, that when someone attempts to sell me something by waving the flag in my face it is time to clutch my wallet. Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson observed, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The last refuge is upon us.

An alliance of both business and labor is waving the flag in our face, knocking things foreign, usually Japanese, and promoting things American. This would be terrific if product quality was also mentioned, but so far that has not been the case. Instead, we are urged to buy American because it is American. It would help, though, if the products also worked.

Thus, General Tire has introduced something called the Ameri. It is an American tire, made in America by Americans, the ad tells us. That is to say it is not made anywhere else and should be bought for that reason. This John Wayne of a tire may in fact be a terrific buy, not to mention a wonderful tire, but the appeal is not being made on that basis, or not just on that basis. Instead, it is an appeal to patriotism. (Michelin is French and a tire industry leader, but coming up fast is Bridgestone, a Japanese outfit.)

Surveys tell us that Americans are getting testy about foreign competition, particularly from Japan. In some cases, unions and management are cooperating in boycotting Japanese goods--prohibiting credit union loans for the purchase of Japanese cars, for instance. And in communities where industries have suffered because of Japanese competition, merchants are boycotting Japanese products.

The resentment is understandable. The Japanese have knocked the stuffings out of some American industries. The auto industry is fighting for its very life. The little country that used to turn out novelty items, and whose imprint "Made In Japan" was synonymous with junk, has built a reputation for quality. Now, in fact, that same imprint is being illegally stamped on items made elsewhere (Taiwan, for example) to provide a bogus cachet of quality. (Incidentally, it's on some souvenirs sold at the Knoxville world's fair.)

The growing American sentiment is that the Japanese have been able to do well because they are unfair competitors. They hold down their wages and close their own country to foreign competition. There is something to that argument. The Japanese are not really fair traders and they do have lower labor costs. In the auto industry, for instance, the 1981 wages of an average Ford or General Motors worker was about $11.57 an hour. In Japan, the figure was $6.15.

Still, that is not the whole story. Even if wages here were lowered (or those in Japan raised), the Japanese would still be able to make a cheaper (and probably better) car. They have better management, better ideas of how to get workers to perform, a better inventory system and, in most cases, no tradition of executive bonuses that encourage short-term profits and, consequently, the chance of long-term failure. No one who has bought an American car recently thinks high wages are what makes the thing shimmy at 60 miles an hour.

The trouble with the buy-American campaign is that it obscures the real problems facing American industry. It asks the consumer to pay for the mistakes of American management--pay more and get less so that American industry can continue to be noncompetitive. In the long run, that won't work. After all, if the Japanese were not now teaching us a lesson, down the road it would be Koreans or some other country. America cannot match the wages paid in the Third World, nor should it. And the American worker should not have to lower his standard of living to pay for the mistakes of American management.

But there is something a touch ugly about the buy-American campaign when it is directed at Japan, or, for that matter, any Asian nation. It touches a raw nerve and taps residual American racism. For American industry and, in some cases, unions, to revive those sentiments to make a buck is not only ugly, but shortsighted as well.

Samuel Johnson had his warning about the uses of patriotism, but someone else had something to say about mousetraps. Make a better one, he said, and the world will beat a path to your door.

So far the Japanese are making better mousetraps.