They are unleashing business.
I have heard that phrase a dozen times, two dozen times now, and it always conjures up a strange double vision. I cannot decide whether the thing they are "unleashing" is a mad dog frothing at the mouth or a race horse champing at the bit.
It is an article of faith in the Reagan camp that if we unwrap the red tape from the overburdened beast, business will gallop off in a burst of energy and solve all our problems. But the somewhat less devout may wonder if it won't run wild, jaws open, as a kind of public menace.
For the moment, business, like Reagan, is enjoying a honeymoon. There is a real desire on our part to see the private sector work; there is at least a tentative willingness to trust.
But we don't yet know whether business will respond to social concerns without being forced. And quite frankly, the early signs are not encouraging.
The most disheartening example of what Reagan means by unleashing big business came last week in the international flap over the marketing of baby formula. In a vote in the World Health Organization, the United States voted against an international code to regulate the marketing of infant formulas.
For some time, manufacturers of baby formulas have aggressively advertised the "modern" substitute for breast-feeding in Third World countries.
Formulas are, at best, expensive and poor alternatives to the real thing. But in the developing countries, according to Dr. Stephen Joseph, who resigned from the Agency for International Development after the vote last week, "the baby bottle becomes a lethal weapon." Mothers can run out of the formula, or the money to buy more, after their breast milk has dried up. They also commonly mix the powder with dangerously polluted water.
The code, as adopted, urges countries to ban the promotion and advertising of baby formula, stop giving out free samples, label the formula as inferior to breast milk, and warn people about the hazards of improper preparation.
The Reagan administration voted to keep this "lethan weapon" loaded.
Elliott Abrams of the State Department doesn't dispute the fact that breast milk is superior to bottled milk. Nor does he deny the abuses of advertising. Rather, he said on the McNeil-Lehrer Report, the government had to vote "no" on constitutional grounds.
"Here is an effort to control the free flow of what can be truthful information in a commercial context," he said. If we can't condone bans on advertising in this country, he said, we can't condone them in another.
This particular defense deserves an entry into the Hypocrite's Hall of Fame. The Reagan administration is perfectly willing to change the Constitution in order to "stop the killing" of the unborn. But it defends the sanctity of the Constitution when the lives of the already born are endangered.
The administration says that we cannot have one policy for marketing at home and another policy for marketing abroad. Yet we already maintain a double standard that helps business. Americans are allowed to sell assorted products to foreign countries -- from pesticides to certain IUDs -- that are banned at home.
I have to agree with Joseph and his colleague, Eugene N. Babb, who also resigned from AID after this vote: "A no vote on this code will signal the world that the United States does not care if our firms behave irresponsibly overseas."
There is equal question whether our firms will behave responsibly at home.
As the government reduces regulations on auto emissions and safety standards, will business set its own codes or stop caring? If we drop environmental red tape, will companies feel free to judge their own behavior or simply to run amuck? If we no longer have quotas on affirmative action, will they devise their own numbers or go back to ground zero?
The trust of business in this honeymoon period is still fragile. The president has been a cheerleader for the renewed energy of the private sector. But he has yet to use his bully pulpit to pledge business to its public responsibilities. I am not at all sanguine about just which of these business animals we are unleashing.