"The essential problem" in Haiti, Secretary of State George Shultz said the other day, is that country's "tremendous poverty and illiteracy."

Not a bad seat-of-the-pants diagnosis. But Shultz's proposed treatment seems ludicrously wide of the mark. The cure, he said on ABC's "Good Morning America," is democratic elections.

Few people would be happier than I to see that poverty-stricken, riot-torn country have free elections. But while democracy would no doubt rid Haiti of its chubby despot, Jean- Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier, it strikes me as ludicrous to suppose that it would solve Haiti's stupendous poverty.

It is a bait-and-switch game America routinely plays when it comes to prescribing remedies for the Third World. Wetalk about poverty, landlessness and maldistributed wealth, but then we try to sell the notion that the remedies are political, not economic.

Listen to Shultz on Haiti: "We believe, as is our view around the world, that the way to start out of these problems is to have people running the government who are put there by an electoral kind of process. We are calling for the type of government -- there and elsewhere -- that is put there by a democratic process."

He seems oblivious to the obvious: Haiti under President-for-Life Duvalier is a resource-poor, poverty-stricken, desperate country. Haiti under a freely elected president-for-four-years would still be resource- poor, poverty-stricken and desperate -- unless something was done to improve its economy.

This confusion between politics and economics is routine in our dealings with the Third World. We talk about the poverty of Central America, for instance, but instead of proposing economic emedies for the region's economic problems, we gear up to fight communism. It is as though we have forgotten that it was poverty that paved the way for communist advances, not the other way around.

The source of the confusion is that our stated goals are different from our actual ones. We say we care about the plight of the peasants in South and Central America, when what we really care about is (1) American business and (2) our struggle against communism. We are staunch supporters of "authoritarian" despots who are hospitable to U.S. business interests; we are sworn enemies of "totalitarian" despots who aren't. We prescribe free elections when they hold promise of installing anticommunist governments, but we spare no effort at subverting communist governments, no matter how freely elected.

When have you heard any U.S. official talk about the problems of Grenada? Grenada's leftist leader, Maurice Bishop, is dead, and the present government is pro- American, so from the American point of view there is no Grenadian problem, no matter that the people still live in poverty.

Haiti's Duvalier is no communist, but he is a tyrant. But because he was a tyrant friendly to the United States, he was, until recently, still getting American aid. (The State Department has moved to hold up some $26 million in aid to the Duvalier regime, but if "Baby Doc" reestablishes his control of the country and makes some token human rights concessions, can anyone doubt that Uncle Sam will resume his check- writing?)

The fascinating thing is that for all of our ostensible concern for Third World peasants and our deep-dyed opposition to leftist political systems, we make virtually no effort to export the American economic system. Not even in Grenada, where our "rescue" operation gave us nearly a blank check, have we given any thought to competing with the communists by establishing an American- style economy. It is as though we secretly doubt that our economic system will work in the Third World. But if our shoe won't fit, why do we object so fiercely to these countries' trying on someone else's?

Angola's South Africa-backed Jonas Savimbi, in town this week, says he has won promises of U.S. support in his guerrilla war against a popularly elected, but leftist, government.

What does guide our policies? Whatever it is, it isn't pride in our economic system; it isn't our sympathy for poverty-stricken peasants; and, as the Angolan case makes clear, it isn't free elections.

We only know what we are against. Wouldn't it make sense to spend some time on the question of what we are for?