President Carter is treading water for the moment on the question of how to respond to Poland's request for multi-billion-dollar economic relief, but the argument within his administration goes on. There is strong support for offering some help now, and dangling the prospect of more later, in order to firm up the exciting but fragile union-government experiment in power-sharing, or at least to show that the United States cares. Even if cost were not a consideration, however -- and it is -- help of the no-strings attached sort desired by the Poles would not be a good idea.

It is worth examining why. The workers' strike movement of last August reflected the collapse of the system of political control of the economy practiced by the Communist Party since it was put in power by the Red Army in World War II. The trouble was not simply economic duress, which is admittedly extreme. It was political control, which is pervasive, stultifyng and woefully wasteful. This is why the $20 billion in Western credits that Poland received in the 1970s left the country the debt-ridden, inefficient place it is today. The proper antidote is not, then, economic relief but political decontrol: to depoliticize, debureaucratize and decentralize economic decision-making to allow a greater hand to marker forces and to popular demand.

Understandably, the Polish government wants just an economic quick-fix: fast, safe -- if temporary -- relief from its ailment. With Western aid, it wants to restore the old-style command economy that is the natural complement of the Communist Party's political monopoly. But why should the United States, or others in the West, pay for the privilege of making Poland safe again for Soviet-style state socialism -- a system in which, finally, there is no place for an independent union movement or for even the limited political rights that the workers are trying to achieve now? Further credits or debt relief or whatever -- with the American taxpayer's money, mind you -- should be tied to reforms. Otherwise, let Moscow pay.

The official Poles now argue that the West must grant new easy credits, so that Poland can repay the old ones and -- this is said warily -- so that the Soviet Union won't invade. To establish credit-worthiness and repayment capacity, however, reforms are essential. Nor can Soviet restraint be purchased by American dollars. The most valuable contribution the United States can made in that regard is to let Moscow know that, if it invades Poland, all of its bets with the new administration are off.