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The business of America is business, said Calvin Coolidge, but apparently a lot of businessmen haven't caught on. Or so it would appear from the way they manage their corporations' financial contributions.

Corporate giving is itself a big business these days - especially donations to think tanks, research groups, political activists and other public policy organizations.Such outfits received more than $26 million in donations from American corporations in 1987.

You'd think that businesses would prefer organizations that advance pro-business causes: lower taxes, deregulation, or more moderate environmental controls. But you'd be wrong.

James Bennett, an economics professor at George Mason University, recently examined the public-affairs giving of the nation's largest corporations.

He was surprised to find that "60 percent of the . . . donations went to groups whose political agendas include higher taxes, more regulation and expansion" of government power.

These donor programs make for strange bedfellows indeed.

General Motors, for example, gave $7,500 to the National Wildlife Federation, which agitates for strict auto emissions standards that GM has long opposed.

Archer-Daniels-Midland, an agricultural conglomerate, gave $20,000 to the Institute for Policy Studies, a far-left think tank that advocates government control of markets.

Primerica, an insurance company, gave $20,000 to "women's groups" that seek to outlaw the use of actuarial tables in fixing insurance rates.

Are the corporations unaware of the recipients' public-policy aims, or are they striving for "balance" (and failing to achieve it)?

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman argues that corporations should forego corporate giving altogether because it distracts them from their true social responsibility, which is to maximize wealth for shareholders and employees.

That seems an unrealistic view. But it's more coherent than the picture drawn by Bennett: Corporate profits spent to fund groups whose goal - through regulation or higher taxes - is to reduce corporate profits.