With apologies to Cole Porter, what is this thing called choice, this crazy thing called choice? I ask because increasingly the word is used as if it were a discovery, a rediscovery really, that we can make choices in our lives. 'Tis true. 'Tis also false.

Consider for a moment the way the cigarette industry has adopted the word for its own use. We are told that we have the choice to smoke or not, and neither the government nor some do-gooder advertising code has the right to decide this matter for us.

In some sort of theoretical sense, that's true. But what I most remember about smoking is the opposite -- the total lack of choice. When I awoke in the middle of the night, reached for a cigarette and found none, I did not think I had the choice. I thought, instead, that I had no choice but to get up, get dressed and, if necessary, walk through the snow to get a pack. Choice, in fact, had nothing to do with why I started smoking in the first place. When you're 14 and dying to be one of the boys, you don't choose between instant gratification and heart disease down the road at 60. You smoke.

The same thing holds when it comes to seat belts. We are told by opponents of mandatory seat-belt legislation that people can either buckle up or not -- it's their choice. But is it? Do people get into their cars and say to themselves, "Now I have a choice. I can either take a second and buckle up, or I can risk injury -- a broken nose, a collapsed skull." The fact remains that these people think the choice is only between buckling up and not buckling up. Accidents

TAKE 211807 PAGE 00002 TIME 18:52 DATE 03-16-85 happen to other people.

The problem with the word choice is that it is being used as a smokescreen for something else entirely -- sometimes greed, sometimes indifference. The cigarette companies want to continue selling cigarettes -- so you ought to have the choice to buy them. The car companies want to avoid the expense of putting in air bags -- so you ought to have the choice of using or not using seat belts. The real choice has been made by these industries. They've chosen to shuck their moral obligations.

Still, their arguments fall on receptive ears. After years of being told that people were without choices, that everyone was the inevitable product of a particular environment, the return of choice was greeted as if it were common sense itself: You mean that some people are crooks not because they were born in the slums but because they chose to be? You mean that some people are out of work not because all the jobs have gone to Taiwan but because they're too lazy to look for jobs? Oh, how refreshing that news is. Once again, we are master of our fate, the captain of our ship.

But saying people always have a choice is as silly as saying they never do. If some people are poor by choice, then some people are not -- unless you think we somehow get to choose our parents. If some people choose to be criminals, then just as surely some people are criminals because they have perceived no other choice -- perception being as good as reality for most people. After all, even conservatives know that the concept of choice has its limitations. They do not argue that we ought to have the choice to smoke marijuana -- a victimless crime whose consequences are both less certain and less damaging than cigarette smoking.

But emphasizing choice where it either does not exist or its importance is marginal lets everyone off the hook -- the cigarette companies for selling a product that kills, auto companies for putting profits ahead of lives and even the government for cutting back social programs.

If people choose to be poor, then so be it. If they choose to be criminals, then they deserve punishmen maybe even death, not rehabilitation and another chance. In the end, the word choice is just another way to disguise lack of compassion or greed by invoking our democratic right to self-destruction.

So what is this thing called choice, this crazy thing called choice? It's often a cop-out, an excuse, a reason not to do anything and yet another way to blame the victim -- the poor, the smoker, someone injured in an auto accident. They had their choice, didn't they? Yes, and the public has its. It chooses to do nothing.