I keep in my office a picture of my grandmother and me standing before the Statue of Liberty. The picture shows a boy in short pants, maybe 5 or 6, and an old woman, stocky and strong -- a peasant who, like millions of others, first glimpsed the statue as a passenger in steerage. My grandmother steamed into New York harbor an immigrant and walked down the gangplank an American. For that, the boy holding her hand has always been grateful.

It is for that reason I have an almost proprietary interest in the Statue of Liberty, and I have been following with a somewhat jaundiced eye the campaign to refurbish it. As almost everyone knows, the statue is under repair in anticipation of its centennial next year. Something like $230 million will be needed. At the moment, she is girdled with scaffolding and her famous torch rests in a warehouse where artisans are duplicating it.

I know the exact whereabouts of the torch from a newspaper ad placed by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the group raising the restoration funds. The ad is yet another plea for donations -- "If you still believe in me, help me finish the job" -- and includes the standard coupon to check off the amount of your contribution or, if you see fit, the number of your Mastercard, Visa or American Express card. America did not welsh on its promise. Emma Lazarus' "wretched refuse" now carry plastic.

So far so good. But in exchange for pledging various amounts of money, participating corporations have the right to use the statue in their advertising. Thus, American Airlines, one of nine "official sponsors," used the plight of the statue to announce that if you fly American, it will make an unspecified donation to the restoration fund. No other airline could make that claim, if only because no other airline gets to use the Statue of Liberty in its promotions. You have to pay for that.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it is. It is the same method used to franchise the Olympics -- a system that resulted in Subaru's becoming the official car of an American team. As with the Olympics, the federal government is leaving everything to private enterprise. Some companies pledge money; others pledge services. In the Age of the Entrepreneur, such a scheme is supposed to be above criticism -- yet another example of Americans doing without big, bad government.

But with apologies in advance to those firms whose interest in the statue is wholly unselfish, let me point out that the Statue of Liberty is not the Olympics -- not a game, not a sport, not entertainment, but a genuine piece of the national heritage, our Big Ben, our Eiffel Tower, all of that and more. It should not be for sale -- not to an airline, not to anyone. Even in the Reagan Era, there are some things the government ought to do for itself.

I suppose that eventually private enterprise will raise all the money it needs and the statue will be repaired. Then everyone will toot a horn to capitalism, the head of the project will be mentioned for the Senate (maybe -- who knows? -- Time magazine's Man of the Year) and everyone will overlook the fact that absolutely nothing has been proved. I hate to think of what would happen, for instance, if private enterprise were asked to restore the Washington home of Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and newspaper editor. Some checks would forever be in the mail.

New York and New Jersey are trying to determine which state owns the island on which the Statue of Liberty stands. Common sense, though, asserts that the island really belongs to neither state. It belongs to us all. If that's the case with the island, it's certainly the case with the statue. For $235 million, we -- our government -- ought to be able to spruce up the statue without franchising parts of it or allowing it to be used in the sales of beer, wine or -- would you believe? -- chewing tobacco.

To millions here and around the world, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of America itself. Refugees waved their handkerchiefs at it and kids like me posed before it with immigrant grandparents -- a hand holding the hand that had once held the waving handkerchief. One old lady is gone now, but the other endures. The price for her survival should not be her virtue.