THE DRESSER CASE TAKES you to the hard yeses and noes of Soviet-American trade. Dresser Industries, Inc., of Dallas, wanted to sell the Russians a complete plant for making rock oil drilling bits and related technology. The State and Commerce departments recommended consummating the deal, the Pentagon and the Department of Energy recommended suspening it pending further study, and in September President Carter, while ordering up a study, let the export go ahead. If that's a bit like checking the lock on the barn door after the horse has galloped free, that's precisely what seems to be the case on Capitol Hill, as well, where hearings on the deal did not open until after it had been approved. No matter. The growing efforts of American industry to lower political barriers to their eexports, and the new trade possibilities opened up by signs of improvement in Soviet-American relations, make the Dresser case a timely one to explore.

We pass quickly by the point, made in Sen. Henry M. Jackson's hearings, that the government needs to sharpen up the procedures by which it judges applications for export of what Mr. Jackson calls "security-sensitive technologies." We pass by, too, the further point that technology that would directly serve an adversary's military buildup ought not to be transferred. The Pentagon had no trouble with the Dresser deal on either score, at least on its first go-around.

What interests us more is the civilian argument. One school holds that the drilling technology involved in the Dresser sale is exotic and concentrated in the United States. Another, with impressive supporting data, holds that the technology is widely available. All the facts may not be in but, as a general rule, we think it wise to question the view, often expressed only implicity by those who hold it, that the Soviets in approaching the world of high technology have neither native capacity nor access to non-American alternatives. The Soviet Union is not a peasant society. Other things being equal, it seems to us the burden of proof is on those who deny a given export on grounds that the Soviets are incapable of mastering the necessary technology.

The main question, we think, centers on the strtegic significance of helping the Russians build up their energy industry. Again, one school holds that the United States should be slow to help Moscow stew in its own socialist juices. The other school believes there is advantage for the West in letting Moscow become dependent to a degree on the Western economy. More specifically, the one school argues that a Soviet Union with an enhanced domestic energy industry and the capacity to drill elsewhere will be a more formidable competitor. The second school responds that, given the pressure expected on world energy resources in coming years - and the incentive that will offer to bruising, not to say provacative, competition for available supplies - it serves American interests best to get the maximum number of explorers into operation as soon as possible. We have say that we lean strongly to the second view.

Obviously, in this debate a great many assumptions having nothing to do with oil come into play: assumptions about the world economy, East-West relations and so on. These will complicate discussion of the narrower question of the Dresser deal. That is good. The debate is not about the export of rock drilling bit technology but about the kind of world in which Americans want to live and the sort of relations with the Soviet Union that this country wants to have.