POOR Mikhail Gorbachev. He is confronted by the paradox that assails many a communist leader. The Soviet Union's economy is a shambles and Mr. Gorbachev wants to make it more efficient. A little dose of capitalism might do the trick; a little free-market enterprise, a little incentive plan for the workers, might nudge the economy out of the stagnation it has fallen into under the stultifying hand of a Marxist bureaucracy.
But the lesson of history is that economic freedom goes hand in hand with political freedom. Can Gorbachev have one without the other?
He wants economic liberalization. But instead of democracy alongside it, he has just engineered a leadership shake-up that consolidates and centralizes power in his own hands.
He wants perestroika, or economic restructuring. To get it, he permitted glasnost, an openness hitherto unknown under Soviet communism. Glasnost was hardly democracy, but it was intended to stimulate discussion and encourage an intellectual assault on the party bureaucracy he sees hobbling economic progress. Now, however, it looks as though glasnost is being reined in. Some of those who applied it forgot the rules. Glasnost is not freedom to criticize across the board. Glasnost is freedom to criticize that which Gorbachev wants criticized.
Nothing illustrates this better than Gorbachev's recent testiness with the more outspoken Soviet press. He is as unhappy with negative reporting as any American politician is. The difference is that while an American politician must grin and bear it, Gorbachev has the power to put press critics out of business.
The New York Times reports from Moscow that some of the more daring publications are either being cut back or eliminated.
Uchitelskaya Gazeta, for instance, is a lively education journal that has been prodding the bureaucracy for reform in education. It is to be closed and replaced with a new weekly. Meanwhile, circulation cuts have been decreed for some of the more adventurous Soviet publications. The reason given is a shortage of printing paper. Many Soviets believe this is an excuse for limiting their circulation and influence.
Believed irritating to the leadership are such publications as Ogonyok, the Moscow News, and literary publications like Novy Mir and Znamya.
Ogonyok editor Vitaly A. Korotich is quoted by the Times as saying: ``Do not misunderstand this move [the paper cuts]. It is a strike against glasnost and democracy. If the paper shortage is so severe, why are new publications being created?'' Mr. Korotich's newspaper had earlier been under fire from conservative critics for an article it published claiming corruption in various party organizations.
The backlash against the press seems to have been occasioned by conservative feeling that some newspapers have become too radical, and by Gorbachev's belief that the press is not supportive enough of his reforms. At a recent meeting with editors, Gorbachev blamed the press for exaggerating problems within the USSR and called for restraint. Gorbachev was particularly incensed by a newspaper survey suggesting there was little support for his programs. He said the survey was unscientific and misleading.
The Communist Party newspaper Pravda has published Gorbachev's criticism of other newspapers. It quotes the Soviet leader as saying: ``In some speeches and publications, you almost get the idea that perestroika has aggravated the economic situation, thrown finances out of balance, worsened supplies of food and goods, and sharpened ... problems.''
In his regulation of glasnost, Gorbachev has made it clear that there are very decided limits to the freedoms his citizens aspire to.