NEW YORK -- ''I create nothing. I own. . . . I buy and sell what's already there.'' So speaks Michael Douglas portraying a Mephistophelean financier in the movie ''Wall Street.'' In one scene he delivers a close approximation of the ''greed is good'' homily that Ivan Boesky once served up to a commencement audience. Have we met this man before? Yes, in April 1920:
''He was 46 years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.'' George F. Babbitt was created by Sinclair Lewis in an era punctuated by a crash.
Judgment upon Ivan Boesky and Michael Deaver coincided with another crash. Their cases feed the cynicism that fuels the peculiar populism of ''Wall Street,'' the movie. And the cultural phenomenon of revulsion against certain mores of contemporary capitalism is politically portentous.
Populism always is the politics of resentment -- resentment of railroads gouging farmers, of manufacturing monopolies, of Washington. Comes now, in ''Wall Street,'' upper-middle-class populism, the resentment of those who feel disadvantaged regarding leveraged buy-outs. However, it is hard to arouse a mass movement against institutions and practices unfamiliar to the masses.
Laws regulating uses of information (see Boesky) and restricting Washington advocacy (see Deaver) invariably draw wavy, blurry lines. It is precisely this imprecision that allows for ambiguities that can tempt people over the indistinct lines into corruption. The portrayal of temptation is the strength of ''Wall Street.''
The director, Oliver Stone, who also directed ''Salvador'' and ''Platoon,'' makes political films that frequently become agitprop. ''Wall Street'' does that when Douglas spouts statistical rubbish about America's distribution of wealth. This movie is larded with economic baby talk: we should ''create instead of living by the buying and selling of others,'' and capitalism is ''a zero-sum game'' in which money is not made or lost, it is only ''transferred.''
''Wall Street'' is a morality soap opera. It is a slick 1980s idea of ''Waiting for Lefty,'' with a working stiff (the father of the young corrupted broker) as moral paragon. But Stone has part of a point and is not alone in seizing it. Caryl Churchill's play ''Serious Money,'' which lampoons the frenzy of London's stock market, is a hit Off-Broadway and will be an even bigger one on Broadway beginning in January.
Like ''Wall Street,'' ''Serious Money'' stresses the antic mayhem of today's capital markets. There are 30 telephones on the set, and clatter is the constant background to a script delivered almost entirely in rhymed couplets. With manic inventiveness, Churchill's stagecraft fills the theater with a torrent of randomness. The plot, such as it is, is hard to follow, and that is part of the point.
In ''Serious Money'' contemporary capitalism is portrayed as ''half roulette, half Space Invaders.'' In ''Wall Street'' the investing public, unlike the inside traders, is described as ''out there throwing darts at a board.''
A moral vulnerability of capitalism today is the belief that too much wealth is allocated capriciously, not only by the randomness of luck but by morally tainted shortcuts around a level playing field for all competitors. The legitimacy of the economic order depends on a consensus that, on balance, rewards are rationally related to the social value of the effort involved.
Legitimacy also depends on the belief not only that careers are open to talents, but also that investors have reasonably equal access to a valuable commodity -- information. Furthermore, in a modern economy where government permeates economic life, another precious commodity is access -- the ability to address decision-makers.
Ronald Reagan should pay more attention to the movies, at least ''Wall Street.'' The Republican Party is the conservative party, and conservatism celebrates capitalism, so the Republican Party is vulnerable to any decline in the social standing of capitalists. When will Republicans find their voices for denouncing those who subvert the consensus sustaining the economic order, beginning with inside traders and access exploiters?
Suppose the 1988 campaign is punctuated by indictments of persons accused of white-collar crimes. If genuine revulsion is not sufficient, simple self-interest should move Republicans to do what ''Wall Street'' does. The movie expresses a moral anxiety: too much wealth is being allocated in ways irrationally related to social betterment.
The economic system, the primary allocator of the benefits of American life, is being drained of its legitimacy by the practices of people who are the conservatives' problem. Conservatives should be in a prosecutorial mood. Surely they should understand that discrediting economic arrangements is the essence of the left's agenda for expanding the role of the state as allocator of benefits.