A POLITICAL SYSTEM which ran successfully without the daily oiling of a little bribery would be an interesting experiment. But we have no way of knowing what it would be like -- although some writers have tried to imagine it in their utopias -- because no such system has ever existed in the history of man. Human ingenuity has been devising political constitutions of great sophistication for something more than 4,000 years, but it has never yet constructed a political regime which is wholly free of the influence that can be worked by a handful of silver.

This may be a melancholy reflection on our natures. But its truth should caution us that we cannot hope to eradicate bribery from our own system; that we should now grow too exercised over every evidence of its existence; and that it can be distracting and even dangerous to make the elimination of all bribery the main focus of our attention.

Outrage is understandable and easily felt, but a sense of proportion is no less necessary. The sums of money that are alleged to be involved in the recent ABSCAM revelations are so small that together they do not amount to half a million dollars. Equally, the services asked in return for these payments are of such insignificance that they threaten neither the prosperity nor the peaceableness of the nation. We are not in the middle of one of the historic ages of corruption which have formerly brought great republics to the dust.

The Washington Post last week published a list of those members of Congress who, since the Second World War, have been indicted, convicted, punished or in some way disciplined, for various forms of peculation and other criminal or ethical misconduct. The names total 40 -- seven others were acquitted or had their cases dismissed -- and that is all. Seventeen Congresses have been elected in that period and, of their hundreds of members, an average of little more than two to each Congress have been found guilty, or are still under indictment. This figure would make most foreigners wonder that any nation can achieve such purity.

Moreover, few of the guilty have been among the leaders or great men of Congress, and the majority of their misdoings have not been of an alarming nature. It is very hard to draw from these facts and figures a picture of a nation whose good governance or even good name is threatened by the corruptibility of its legislators.

I am not saying that the conduct of such men is defensible, or that they are exemplars of all our lawmakers should be. But I am saying that even their accumulated misdeeds are not evidence of the systematic undermining of the political system by corrupt habits. It is important here to make a distinction. The corruption of the Gilded Age was different, not only because it was a grander and altogether more significant scale, but because it was indeed the systematic subversion of the political process by powerful interests, until the two were all but indistinguishable. The railroads did not buy individuals but cohorts. They did not operate from a demure rented villa where the corruptible came like thieves in the night; they operated in the broad daylight in the marketplace of politics and as openly as if they were auctioneers.

Corruption becomes a serious problem only when it threatens to replace the ordinary working of the political process, when the money is used not just to buy a politician here or there but in effect to buy the political system. One would not be wrong in saying that this happens now at the local and state levels in some areas of the United States; but nothing like it happens or threatens to happen now at the national level in the forms we are describing. The oil companies simply do not operate in the same way as the railroads did a century ago, or by the methods used in the ABSCAM operation which so titilate our fancies.

In fact the oil companies and other corporations now act in ways which throw as questioning a light on the conduct of some journalists and other public figures as well as of politicians. No one who regularly takes fees of $1,500 or $3,000 or $5,000 or even $10,000 to address conventions of large corporations or industrial associations can be regarded as independent of them, and should at least be forced to disclose his interest if as journalist or politician he writes of their affairs. There is very little difference between a politician stuffing into his pockets a few thousand dollar bills from an imagined Arab and a journalist stuffing into his bank account the many thousands of dollars which he may accumulate from actual corporations.

But that only illustrates the danger of throwing stones at others. What is far more important is that the American obsession with every small act of corruption diverts attention from the real subversion of the political system that may be taking place. Americans like to catch the crook red-handed; they are hardly interested in the system which spawns the crook.

The ABSCAM operation is presented to us as a further effort in the FBI's determination to crack down on white collar crime. This ambition is no doubt worthy, and may even be long overdue. But to confuse white collar crime with political corruption, even though they have many of the same features, is yet again an example of the American absorption with the individual crook, whereas the political corruption that matters is itself a part of the political system, and needs not indictments or convictions to uproot it so much as political redress. America deals with political corruption only on the level of cops and robbers.

The robber barons in the Gilded Age were no more crooks to be hounded down by the ordinary processes of the law than were Pompey or Crassus or any of the other great consuls or senators who undermined the great Roman republic with corruption. No more are the barons of today to be picked up merely by police surveillance.

This is one of the criticisms that can be made of the muckraking tradition in American journalism. It is always exploring some public official in New Jersey who has been found with his hand in the till, but with no further consequences than that the man is promptly replaced by another public official who then puts his hand in the till. Lincoln Steffens admitted at the end of his career how little good the muckracking had done, and it will not be long before the same verdict is returned on its new life as what we call investigative reporting.

This is why I said at the beginning that too much attention to individual cases of bribery can be a distraction: With them we are hardly above the level of the police court, whereas the calculated subjection of the political system to private interests goes on day by day in loftier spheres.

The little cases of bribery and misconduct, if they reflect anything that deserves our comment or even much concern at all, seem to me usually to be a reminder of how grossly we underpay our elected officials, in this as well as other democracies. The niggardliness of democracies in reimbursing their politicians for what is necessarily an expensive life is one of the most persistent causes of their troubles. If there is sleaziness in the politician who stuffs his pockets with dollar bills, there is sleaziness first in the democracy that makes such an opportunity even tempting.

The penthouses are higher and the boardrooms more deeply paneled where the political funds are allocated by which the corporations will promote the legislation which they want and resist that to which they are opposed. It is not just a question of contributions to political campaigns, of loopholes found in any financing law, or of funds spent on lobbying and on public relations. Just as the boards of directors of the great corporations and financial institutions are interlocked by sharing each others' members, so there spreads from them a seamless web of connections into the social as well as political life of the capital and the economic life of the constituencies which the politicians represent. The favors are those of both personal gratification and an increased political security in each politician's state or district. As with royalty, today's barons do not touch money. Yet the money passes smoothly all the way through the political system, until one day we will hardly be surprised if we hear a voice say, "This country has been made possible by a grant from Mobil Oil." But in these directions the zeal of the muckracker and the piety of the outraged never look. They have found someone scampering away with $25,000.