The checkbook reflex is still alive and well in Washington. The term was coined more than 30 years ago by Sen. Brien McMahon, the liberal Connecticut Democrat, to describe the instinct of the State Department to spend money when it does not know what else to do, but it is of wider application. Indeed, it is characteristic of the American psyche: Any problem is soluble if enough effort and money are concentrated on it.
The most recent manifestation of the checkbook reflex is the proposal in Congress of a ''Marshall Plan'' for Central America. Democratic Rep. Michael Barnes, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, has further refined the idea. He has come up with what he calls the ''1 percent solution'' spending 1 percent of the military budget on foreign aid for the region. This would be roughly $1.65 billion, an amount so disproportionate to the area's absorptive capacity as to boggle the mind.
The idea of a Central American Marshall Plan has a superficial appeal, but it will not withstand analysis. The reasoning is that the area's fundamental problems are economic and social, that the way out of these problems lies in economic development, and that the best, maybe the only, way to get economic development is through massive foreign assistance and regional cooperation and planning, a la the Marshall Plan.
There are several faults in this reasoning. Heaven knows there is overwhelming poverty in Central America, but a principal reason for it is social injustice, specifically the gross maldistribution of wealth and income. A visitor to Central America is as shocked by the wealth (and the flaunting of it) of the few at the top as by the poverty of the many at the bottom. This is complicated in Guatemala by racial injustice as well. Guatemalan Indians are third-class citizens, and ladinos, or those of mixed blood, are second class. The gap between first-class citizens, who are a minuscule fraction of the population, and everybody else is enormous. Costa Rica, which has neither the social nor racial problems of its neighbors, does not have their economic problems either.
It is ludicrous to suppose that a Marshall Plan, or anything else, is going to turn Central America into a Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). Without far-reaching reforms, literally only a trickle of foreign aid would trickle down to the people who need it. Most of it would only further enrich the already bloated oligarchy and would end up in Swiss banks or Miami real estate.
It is countered that such reforms would be made a condition of aid. That was the theory of the Alliance for Progress, but the two countries which the alliance sought to make its showcases - Chile and Colombia - have both come to grief. They are worse off now than they were when the alliance started.
In Central America, the ruling classes resist reforms even when enticed by foreign aid. They do not need foreign aid; they are already rich. They are shortsighted enough that they would rather keep what they have (at the long-term risk of losing it all) than give up a little to protect the rest.
They think that when the chips are down, they can count on the support of the United States. Although there are exceptions, history by and large supports this expectation. The US adapts poorly to radical change in Latin America. Except for some of the very large corporations (Sears, for example), the American business community in Latin America, and especially in Central America, is more conservative than its counterparts in the US. And American governments, under presidents of both parties, frighten easily at the specter of communism - a fear on which Latin American oligarchies are adept at playing.
A fundamental principle of the Marshall Plan was joint planning. The Alliance for Progress tried to push this, too, and encountered resistance from the Latin Americans, most of whom think they can make a better deal for themselves in bilateral negotiations with the US than in multilateral programs. This would also be the case in Central America. It is hard to imagine Guatemala and Nicaragua doing anything jointly.
Proposals for economic aid programs, especially massive ones, in Central Ameica put the cart before the horse. The climate will not be right for economic growth until the area's turbulent politics settle down. (There was economic growth in the 1960s, but it ended when political problems wrecked the Central American Common Market.) The best hope for bringing about political tranquility lies not in military assistance or maneuvers or sending the Navy but in talk and negotiation. The Contadora group of Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela is ready to assist. Being Latin American themselves, the Contadora governments start with the advantage of speaking the same language, both linguistically and culturally, as the Central Americans. Nor do they suffer from the North American handicap of the image of the neighborhood bully, an image which has been reinforced by the naval presence and the prospect of thousands of troops in Honduras.