Very early in basic training, a sergeant ambled into the barracks and gave us two orders. The first was that by the morning we were to have written our names and serial numbers on the inside of our combat boots. The second was that we were forbidden to go to the PX to buy the pens with which to mark our names and serial numbers in our combat boots. Joseph Heller wrote a book about this kind of thing. He called it "Catch-22." Ronald Reagan calls it trade policy.

You think I jest? Notice that the president repeatedly and rightfully denounces all efforts to protect American industries and workers from foreign competition by erecting trade barriers. He says it was trade barriers of the kind contained in the infamous Smoot-Hawley Trade Act of 1930 that triggered the Great Depression and prolonged it. There are very few people who disagree with him.

Now notice something else. Since taking office, the Reagan administration has done precisely what it says it will not countenance. Steel -- a major American industry -- has slowly been brought under protective regulation. Unable to compete with plants in countries such as Brazil or India, unable to find workers who gladly toil at hourly wages that produced the Pullman strike, American steelmakers have had a hard time of it. So for country after country, the administration has come up with steel quotas.

Steel is just the most notorious example of the administration's saying one thing and doing another. Motorcycles are another. When Harley-Davidson ran into trouble, the administration inexplicably came to its aid. There is now a quota on heavy motorcycles of the kind Marlon Brando once rode to fame and fortune. Going up two wheels, to automobiles, the administration until recently imposed so-called voluntary limits on Japanese imports.

It would be one thing if these example of protectionism were part of some sort of grand policy. But there is no policy -- or no policy other than to constantly preach free trade. Some administration critics, for instance, argue that what this country needs is a good industrial policy -- an administration that would decide which industries are to be helped and which are to be allowed to die. For instance, is it in the national interest to continue to make all kinds of steel? And if steel is to be protected, what should the government demand of the steel industry in return? Just what is our policy regarding steel or, for that matter, shoes? A whole lot of steel and shoe workers would like to know.

The Reagan administration, though, recoils from making these decisions. It prefers to leave the hard choices to something called the Free Market. Only reluctantly did the administration finally intervene in the currency markets to drive down the value of the dollar -- a good if tardy move. Now that it sees that government intervention did not make the sky fall in, the administration ought to consider formulating a comprehensive trade policy.

Consider for a moment the workers who have either lost their jobs or think they will because of foreign competition. There is a program to relocate and train these workers, the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program. But for two years its funding has been opposed by the Reagan administration. Retraining is hardly a sure thing, but when the unemployment rate is a bit over 7 percent and holding, it seems worth a try.

The president is right in insisting that trade barriers are counterproductive. In the long run, they would cost us jobs and whole industries. But he is wrong if he thinks that repeating the term "free trade" is any substitute for a policy that would bring its benefits to American workers. At the moment, free trade is a lot like the free lunch. There's no such thing.