No one can be entirely comfortable with the idea of affirmative action -- having the government seek to balance and redeem history by discriminating today in favor of groups that were discrimination's victims in the past. In some measure the remedy partakes of the very defects it is meant to cure.

Does that mean, as the staff of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has suggested, that the government should shelve the "set-aside" programs by which it seeks to steer more federal contracts to businesses owned by minority-group members and women? We don't think so.

The government now signs $185 billion in contracts a year. It has both right and obligation to use this economic leverage for social ends. The "set- aside" programs -- most of which are not set-asides -- were begun for defensive reasons after the riots of the late 1960s. Every president since has supported them; the programs are now quite elaborate. Every agency of government must set itself a minority contracting goal each year. The Small Business Administration has the right to appeal these to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy if it thinks they are too low. The Commerce Department then keeps book.

The agencies fulfill their obligations by 1)simply contracting with minority firms in the normal course of business, 2)pressing their prime contractors to seek out minority subcontractors in much the way firms doing business with the government are also required to follow affirmative action plans in hiring, and 3)giving some contracts to minority firms on a noncompetitive basis through the SBA's so-called 8(a) program. Last year about $6.2 billion in contracts (only 3.4 percent) went to minority firms, $2 billion the first way, $1.4 billion the second, $2.8 billion the third. There are also some efforts to ensure that grants to state and local governments are shared with minority firms. The most explicit is in transportation; in 1983 Congress raised the gasoline tax and bluntly set aside for minority firms 10 percent of the highway work the increase would fund.

Explicit set-asides of this kind go too far for us. For now, we would keep the rest. The commission staff cites problems the programs have had: minority firms that were fronts for majority owners, firms that were propped up too long by the SBA. It is argued, though the extent is unclear, that the programs add to costs. It is also impossible to prove how effective the programs have been in the development of minority firms, their putative goal. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses are born and die each year; the programs' effects are indistinguishable. Our sense of it, nevertheless, is that the programs help more than hurt. The White House, which opposes other such programs, says it likes these. We welcome it to the hard side of the argument.