Polonius: My Lord, I will use them according to their desert.

Hamlet: God's Bodykins, man. Much better. Use every man according to his desert and who should 'scape whipping?

-- Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)

So true, you melancholy Dane, you, and yet how few people know it. A case in point: the unending brouhaha and finger-pointing over the strange case of David Begelman, an uproar that reveals far more about the innocence and naivet,e (at best) of American journalists and thinking-class types than it does about David Begelman or about Hollywood. On network news shows both early and late, in mass magazines from People to Newsweek, even in The Wall Street Journal, five years after the event, time and ink are still being lavished on a crime by an obscure man involving less money than Bill Moyers makes in three weeks. Why?

As everyone remembers, David Begelman is the man who was caught forging checks and cashing them for his own use while he was president of Columbia Pictures back in 1977. The discovery, as every sentient adult (and a few non-sentient adults) knows, led to a convulsion, amazement and many shrieks directed at the Hollywood establishment. This episode was recently described in phenomenal and vivid detail in "Full Disclosure," a gripping book by David McClintick. The storm over the original forgeries led to Begelman's exit from Columbia in 1977. The renewed storm generated by McClintick's book led to Begelman's resignation from the chairmanship of MGM/UA, a large, ailing studio, in 1982.

The general tone of the righteous indignation directed against Begelman and the picture and TV business in general, taken in McClintick's book as well as on morning and late-night talk shows and in newsprint columns, has been of a perpetually raised eyebrow aimed at Sunset Boulevard and the solemn reassurance that "That kind of thing could only happen in Hollywood."

If only that were true. Alas, theft at all levels of corporate and business life -- actually at all levels of life everywhere -- is so commonplace that for so much astonishment to have been directed at the Begelman case is a greater mystery than his motives. American life at all levels is so filled with acts of an unethical nature designed to wring money out of the system that by now the taking of less than $100,000 from a company by a high company official might be thought to be a crude but trifling bagatelle.

In the week of mid-September alone, the newspapers carried details of high-level employees of IBM selling vital trade secrets to competitors. There were stories of one of the major law firms in America abusing its trust to whitewash the apparently illegal trades in foreign currency of one of the largest banks in the world. There were court entries about use of company facilities by the mistress of a recently deceased company founder. In newsmagazines, there were detailed accounts of American bank involvement in major swindles by a bank apparently protected if not founded by an archbishop of the Catholic Church.

These were only the cream of the most major business theft cases in only the most major news organs. This summer there has been an almost endless series of stories of bank and securities firm collapses fueled by the theft of company assets and (worse still) borrowed assets by company officers, leaving the banks and securities firms' customers broke and unemployed. There have also been heart-breaking stories of American servicemen swindled out of their life savings by unscrupulous American bankers, some former high military officers.

Again, these represent only the tip of the huge iceberg of business crimes directed not only against customers or depositors, but often against partners and colleagues. And again, this is hardly a new story. Adam Smith pointed out 200 years ago that whenever two businessmen get into a room together, they immediately begin planning to fix prices. The entire early history of that modern legal fiction, the corporation as a separate legal entity, has been a catalog of use of that new entity to swindle money from innocent investors. The history of business is in many ways the story of an engine harnessing basic human emotions to create unheard of material plenty. But it is also a story of battles most definitely not waged according to the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Of course, there are many businessmen who rise to positions of wealth and power without even touching dishonest methods. But there are enough for whom dishonesty is a profit-making tool like the minicomputer to give the whole establishment, even in this modern age of corporate responsibility, a slightly off-color shading.

This should not surprise the ordinary columnist or news writer or lawyer or bystander. Haven't we noticed in our own little lives how often, when money is changing hands, that a general air of "get what you can and devil take the hindmost" is the rule of the road? When a motorist takes his car in for a muffler or a brake job, how often is he not robbed? When he takes in his television or his VCR to be repaired--God help him, pure and simple. When he consults a lawyer, the lawyer's fee schedule is often simply what the traffic will bear. The pricing policies of medical persons and establishments are a continuing national scandal.

And in fact, when we get down to cases, the ordinary citizen like you and me is occasionally on the lookout to make a dime when someone is not looking too carefully. I know from personal experience that cheating by overcharging on travel expenses is commonplace among federal employees. Among the general population, overcharging

Uncle Sam on every manner of tax

deductible expenditure is routine.

Roscoe Eggert of the InternallReve nue Service reported last April that

the voluntary compliance system of

tax collection was simply over whelmed by mass chiseling on taxes.

In a word, there is a great deal of

less-than-perfect behavior where

money is concerned in a great many

areas of American life. It has been

quite a while since anyone followed

me home from the market to give me

a penny of overcharge, and, frankly, I

have given up expecting it to happen. The free enterprise system was always designed to generate an extreme interest in money. In an era of changing morality and declining respect for standards, it is by no means surprising that muffler shops or corporate law firms or bankers or movie studio executives would put one over on the people they are supposed to be working for or with.

Not only that, but when someone acts unethically and is discovered, it is not at all uncommon for that person or group to be kept on in a position of trust. The directors of Columbia were reluctant to fire David Begelman because they knew he could make profitable pictures. That very large bank has shown no sign of dismissing the law firm accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of "an out and out whitewash." People who are competent at their work and commit noncritical unethical acts tend to be kept on now for the very same reason that Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to fire Sherman Adams after Adams accepted a vicuna coat. Eisenhower said of Adams, "I need him." That is what a great many other people say about capable people who acted badly. History is far more filled with keeping such people in place, from Crassus to Napoleon's family, than with moralistically casting them out.

So, if acts such as Begelman's are commonplace, and if devotion to him like Hollywood's is an old story, what is all the moaning and crying about David Begelman telling us?

For one thing, it tells us that the unceasing struggle for publicity carried on by Hollywood occasionally pays off in ways that Hollywood does not like. But Hollywood can hardly complain if the effort to turn the national spotlight on the kittens of the stars and dogs of movies occasionally also picks up a hand in the till.

But more important, the unending furor over Begelman says that a certain large element of innocence and hypocrisy dwells in the minds of a goodly portion of the press and the public. The innocence comes in blissfully remaining unaware that the same system that gives us all those video games and built-in saunas also involves a great deal of outright theft.

Seemingly, many Americans feel that the great engine of national wealth is run by men and women of unfailingly pure motives, conscientious three-piece suiters motivated more by the need to do right than by the need to do well, real life masters of the men and women in institutional advertisements for large banks. It would be pretty to think that when large sums of money are at stake in the corporate world, people are more scrupulous than when small sums are involved at the automatic transmission shop or on our own income taxes. Alas, that fantasy and the dream of the squeaky clean executive and entrepreneurial class are equally unrealistic.

Not everyone cheats on car repairs and not everyone cheats on his income tax. But a lot of people do. By the same token, not everyone steals from his employers (and certainly few do it by forging checks, which may in fact show that Begel man's acts were those of a disor dered, rather than crafty mind), but enough do so that their acts should not merit endless amazement.

Hypocrisy comes in when we pretend that the motives (not the crude, neurotic way in which they are gratified) that animated a David Begelman are absent from the hallways of great newspapers or TV networks or even universities and foundations. The human personality has large needs. The system has large temptations. There is a lot of ingenuity around for bringing the two together. Some people do it by forging checks, which is foolish and dishonest, and some do it by overclaiming travel and medical deductions, which is crafty and dishonest. The underlying motives and acts are not unusual and neither is an institution, like Hollywood, keeping the capable but errant clansman at the breast.

Of course, criminal acts cannot and should not go unpunished. But for us to pretend that the Begelman case represents something novel and astonishing is to fool only ourselves about the true nature of the person and the system in which the human person works. To misunderstand the dynamics of either the human personality or the economic system of the nation does not lead to correcting or improving either, even to the small extent that such improvement might be possible in a highly imperfect world. That kind of willful blindness and ignorance leads only to confusion about reality, which may be a good thing inside the movie theater, but is rarely helpful in the big, wide world. Seeing and hearing evil only when it is far from home is a favor only to evil.