LATELY, I keep running into businessmen and corporate managers whose discontents can be summarized in one whining question: Why can't Americans be more like the Japanese?

A few weeks ago, I listened to a steel company executive holding forth on the awesome competitive powers of "Japan Inc." - that government-industry partnership of legend that produces so efficiently and sells so aggressively around the world. Big steel is feeling the pain, and this executive thinks America's only choice is to emulate Japan's success: catelized planning by government and industry, carving up markets, fixing national goals, wages, whatever.

But what happens to the supposed "free enterprise" that business always extols?

"This would be modified free entrerprise," the steel man said, without a trace of irony.

It certainly would. Maybe I am misled by idle cocktail chatter, but my impression is that this idea needs to be watched carefully-and chewed on vigorously by all skeptical small-d democrats. The notion of a unified economic system seems so alluring to a particular kind of business manager, especially those who never read any history. They might start with the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau.

A few months ago, the chief executive of a major chemical corporation was sermonizing over lunch on "free enterprise," berating a table of journalists for not appreciating the marketplace sufficiently. Someone asked how he would remedy the nation's economic ills. Without missing a step, this business leader also began spelling out a moderate version of "Japan Inc.," a government-business partnership.

Mouths fell open around the table. The man recognized the contradiction-and blused.

These people would all blush if they recognized the sweet irony of what they are proposing.It is a modern computerized version of FDR's blue eagle - the National Recovery Act, which called for the same sort of cartelized planning in the Depression. These conservation businessman, without knowing it, are now embracing the old left-liberal idea.

The Supreme Court shot down the NRA eagle as unconstitutional, but in this age of global conglomerate corporations, standing astride national boundaries and doing business in an extraordinary range of products, the idea may have more appeal to that strange conservative mindset that seeks order above all other social values.

If I am right about this (and, as always, I may be wrong), the next decade will produce un upside-down ideological debate on the best economic organization for America. The pro-business conservatives will be leading cheers for vast expansion of government powers. The "reactionaries" will be the new generation of liberals and old-fashioned "free soil" Republicans, people who insist that Americans don't want to be Japanese, that we prefer to remain unruly, disorganized, wildly diverse and individualistic Americans.

Personally, I suspect a lot of Japanese would rather be Americans too. As their young modern society settles into its extraordinary prosperity, I think we will see more of the unruly individualism that produces so many problems for our government and industry. A decade from now, if not sooner, Japan may be bewailing the "decline in productivity" and denouncing the flakiness of its young people.

In the meantime, however, everyone has to concede that the Japanese have successfully channeled their old military zeal (and fierceness) into the pacific and profitable realms of inventive industrial development. The United States, acting on the highest sense of its own self-interest, encouraged this for 25 years, tolerated Japanese dirty tricks in trading and indulged Japan's new-found devotion to pacificism by providing U.S. defenses, free of charge. That era is over and the Japanese may discover that their "cooperative" economic system is not quite so invincible, once the other trading nations, mainly us, demand that we all play by the same rules.

The United States, for instance, spends billions every year across the far Pacific, defending Japan and its trade routes. Japan, I'm told, profited hugely from our two wars in Asia, Korea and Vietnam. Fine, Japan doesn't want to rearm and we should all cheer that noble commitment. But that shouldn't prevent Japan from paying its full, fair share of the bill. They could send us a check every year (so could Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines), and it would virtually wipe out the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, $8 billion to $10 billion this year.

I don't think "Japan Inc." will look quite so awesome once this era of adjustment is settled, but the idea does to many U.S. businessmen, especially if their market is getting kicked to pieces by made-in-Japan products. Conservatives in Congress are promoting a new federal department - "the Department of Trade" - which I suspect is a stalking horse for this idea. A new book by a Harvard professor, "Japan as Number One" (Harvard University Press), scolds Americans for not being more all-together like the Japanese.

Ezra Vogel, chairman of Harvard's Council on East Asian Studies, proposes a number of remedies for us, including "a communitarian vision. In bygone days of more genuinely free enterprise, the model of the indenpendent trader or businessman, like that of the cowboy, was not only appealing but appropriate . . . business leaders now recognize that this model is no longer appropriate in an era in which large organizations comfort complex problems, but they nevertheless lament the loss of our individualistic past. Americans tend to think of the organization as an imposition, an outside force, restraining the free individual. Japanese from an early age are taught the values of group life . . . "

Personally, I prefer to stick with the cowboy.

It feels more American to me, imagining I am a cowboy. Cowboys are what made this country great, also those free-wheeling independent traders whom Vogel regards as archaic. I think we should try to keep thinking of ourselves as cowboys, as long as we can. If I have to choose between illusions, I'll take John Wayne and Gary Cooper over Sony and Toyota.

Prof. Vogel has other fix-it ideas for us, including this one: "A small core of permanent high-level bureaucrats. The capacity to provide long-range direction to society requires a continuity of leadership at high levels, a leadership that has the power and responsibility to oversee specific areas of activity, whether in foreign policy, finance, energy, environment, transportation or regional planning . . . it is not possible to pursue long-term policies when all key personnel change every two to four years."

That's a fancy way of saying that democracy doesn't work. Elected government, subject to the storms and illusions of popular sentiment, can't hack it in the modern age.

The notion that democracy is on its way out must be a favorite at the Harvard lunch tables. It keeps surfacing in different forms from one Harvard professor or another. Henry Kissinger's unspoken premise in diplomacy was that democracy is a long-term loser in the world. Samuel Huntington, the Cold War political scientist, concluded in a nasty little tract on America's domestic ills and unrest that the problem was not bad policies or high crimes and lies from established authority. The problem was "an excess of democracy" among the rabble.

Americans, of course, generally do not buy this. Neither do most elected politicians. America is, after all, too diverse and complex, too grand in size, too wildly open and argumentative, to fit the neat models of national consensus dreamed up at a faculty lunchroom. This is why "Japan Inc." is sure to disappoint its promoters.

I am willing to concede that some sort of increased, more formalized government-business partnership may be an idea of the future, irresistible to those who seek order and stability. But those businessmen are going to be terribly surprised if "Japan Inc." becomes Americanized, for America is not Japan and American politics would likely produce important variations that would horify the conservatives.

For starters, if huge corporations form working partnerships with our huge government, the rest of us will insist that Ralph Nader be named to the board of directors. Or someone like him. A critic who will ask the nasty questions and scream and holler if the deal doesn't smell right.

Meanwhile, others will propose competing solutions to maintain the political and economic freedoms that are so closely intertwined. One rival proposal is public corporations that compete with the private ones. Paul L. Joffe, a Washington lawyer devoted to the antitrust goals of progressive free enterprise, has written a compelling essay in the Catholic University Law Review (Fall 1978) suggesting this future. The goals of antitrust, Joffe suggests, now require creative thinking to counteract the gathering girth of multinational corporations, and one answer may be an array of government-owned corporations, on the rough model of TVA, that will keep the big boys honest. I don't imagine businessmen will like that, but they might bring it on themselves.

Later on, probably, someone will raise a more fundamental question: Who owns these corporations anyway? If we Americans are supposed to follow "a communitarian vision," why shouldn't that vision apply to capital ownership and profits - democratically distributed throughout the land?

I tried to tell this to my friend, the steel man who was pushing "Japan Inc." But it was late at night and we had all had much to drink. He just laughed.