Third World elites frequently seem to want it both ways. They have pilloried the United States for decades for being, in their eyes, a bulwark of antiprogressive reaction. This does not prevent them, when the United States adopts a position that is undeniably progressive, from accusing us of meddling in their internal affairs.

Bimal Ghosh's contribution {op-ed, Sept. 14} is a good example. Ghosh caught the United States tabling a motion to address workers' rights in the new rules governing international trade in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Third World governments, he writes, would almost instinctively consider this an attempt "to bring about changes in their domestic policies by outside agencies."

It's as if workers' rights are a fit object only of external agitation and no concern of the "1.1 billion unprotected workers in the Third World" Ghosh alludes to later in his piece. He capitulates to the "sheer pressure of these vast masses" when it suits his point, but swats away as meddlesome any U.S. efforts to advance their rights.

Ghosh locates a meatier part of the issue in his suspicion that such efforts spring from a desire to put a damper on offshore competition that is draining the United States of jobs. If the multinationals must contend with union bargaining, minimum wages and workers' pensions wherever they go, their Wanderlust will be, if not satiated, at least somewhat jaded. This is protectionism, Ghosh complains, masquerading as humanitarianism.

The inner recesses of a legislator's mind are no doubt labyrinthine, but there is a ring of plausibility to Ghosh's charge. Indeed, the lack of any desire to blunt the import thrust amounts these days to a decision to retire from the brutally competitive arena of American politics. The trade negotiators of both industrialized and newly developing trading partners incessantly point to their intractable political problems at home. It is just as well that they be required to take note of our emergencies too.

There is in any event a middle ground between the mindlessness of, say, the Gephardt measures and the traditional black hole, once again invoked by Ghosh, of "free and open multilateral discussions with no preconditions." The United States can legislate and legislate wisely.

By enacting what I call "magnet tariffs," the United States can use the energies of its vast domestic market to rechannel the respective roles of capital and labor in the international trade of manufactures and services. The yawning wage disparities that are chiefly responsible for the skittishness of multinational corporations can be gradually narrowed or closed. Foreign workers would begin to receive more than subsistence wages. Their increased spending would invigorate their home markets. Their increased security and economic clout would encourage working-class coalescence in the traditional forms. Multinational firms would be able to make siting decisions with a degree of rationality and stability and would be challenged primarily by the steady growth in a variety of markets.

Just incidentally (lest we be accused of disguised protectionism) American workers would be given a breather and, when the dust settled, a much more level playing field. They would also have practically no legitimate excuses for pursuing truly protectionist measures.

What are these magnet tariffs? They would, first of all, be a fraction (never more than 80 percent, I would recommend) of the difference between the prevailing wage rates in the affected industry in the United States and in the country of export. Second, they would be phased in over a five- or 10-year period -- the fraction, that is, would begin small and top out at 80 percent. If wages in the country of export were 80 percent or more of the U.S. rate, the item would enter free of duty.

This is not the space to describe the difficulties or the ramifications of magnet tariffs as a concept. We can be sure, however, that a well-thought-out regime of such tariffs would have revolutionary consequences for hard-pressed workers everywhere. This would be true whether the United States went it alone or, ideally, in concert with its industrialized trading partners. Just don't be surprised to see the leading phalanx of reaction against this revolution thick with Third World elites.

Frank Creel