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The confidence factor

Is there a little of everybody in the European artist who painted buoyant, hopeful pictures when he was in a concentration camp - and gloomy, despairing ones when he moved to free and affluent America? The temptation to lose confidence is rife these days in a Western world of relative abundance despite economic setbacks. To meet these setbacks with vigor, individuals and governments need to draw on the confidence that so often resurges in the midst of direst adversity - a battle of Britain, a Great Depression.

But signs of public doubt can be found in many places. ''Angry Mexicans losing faith in their country,'' says a recent headline, for example. North of the border a United States survey finds consumer confidence at a low ebb.

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It is not surprising that a top aide of US President Reagan says of the White House election strategy: ''We're going to sell hope.'' Certainly, in Tuesday's news conference kicking off the campaign, Mr. Reagan found a hopeful side to most questions, whether foreign or domestic.

But hope is more than a political commodity. It springs in part from the view that individuals or nations hold of themselves. To look at the achievements of Western countries such as the US is to be amazed at doubts about getting back on the way up.

In America's case, recall the reaction to President Carter's notorious ''malaise'' speech of 1979. He told Americans they had lost confidence and had to have it restored. The rejoinder from many was that if Americans had lost confidence it was not in themselves but in their government's performance.

Recall, too, that the speech came when the statistics were bad but would hardly cause malaise today: unemployment at 5.7 percent, prime interest rate at 11 or 12 percent, actually lower than the inflation rate of 13.2 percent - as compared with today's unemployment of about 10 percent and prime rate at 13 percent, far higher than the inflation rate of 5 or 6 percent. Those Americans were only sensible who refused a no-confidence vote in themselves back in '79.

And so will be those who refuse a no-confidence vote in themselves now. After all, inflation and interest rates have been going in the right direction from the later Carter peaks. Economic recovery is around the corner despite ups and downs, says Mr. Reagan.

If he is right, his campaigners will have something to sell besides hope. But if the more pessimistic forecasters are right, the need for hope and confidence will be no less. Indeed, then the decisive rejection of malaise would be all the more necessary.

Why?Not only for the philosophical reason of recognizing the worth and promise of human identity. But for the practical reason of making full use of human talents and energies through an outlook that frees rather than inhibits them.

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That artist in the concentration camp would know what we mean.

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