Labels are a wonderful substitute for thinking, which explains why they are such a popular feature of the American press. Put a label on a fellow or an idea, and neither the writer nor the reader need devote any more painful attention to an attempt at actual comprehension.

It does lead to a certain amount of confusion in the real world, though. Take the reporting on the current turmoil in the Soviet Union. Those like Boris Yeltsin, who favor greater economic freedom, are described as "leftists," while hard-line Communists are - equally bizarrely - described as "rightists."Now, the idea that the more anti-Communist you are, the more "leftist" you are, would be loony enough on the surface. But if advocacy of a freer market economy makes you a "leftist" in the Soviet Union, why does precisely the same advocacy in the United States make you (by the same journalistic label-stamping machine) a "rightist"?

Logically, the only possible rationale for calling free-market advocates "right-wingers" here and "left-wingers" there would be if Soviet society as a whole were to the "right" of the U.S. So far, I don't think any journalist has made that claim, but let's be patient.

It gets worse. As the above illustration suggests, journalists who think of themselves as left of center (as most do), and who consider themselves firm believers in democracy (as nearly all do), naturally use what they consider friendly labels for those who espouse ideas close to their hearts.

Yet, in the more complicated world in which we actually live, labels are not just misleading, they are downright elusive. Those who want a more limited role for government are routinely called "conservatives" if the topic is economics - but "liberals" if the subject is social issues. The true inconsistency is in the mindless labeling.

Similarly, too many journalists continue to overuse such hackneyed descriptions as "anti-labor" and "pro-labor," in the misapprehension that these emotive words are useful and objective terms, which can be defined authoritatively as being against or for whatever happens to be on the mind of some individual AFL-CIO leader on some particular day.

Equally foolish are the convenient labels "anti-business" and "pro-business." No sensible person is truly going to be either "anti-labor" or "anti-business." When a freer American economy produced record numbers of new jobs for American workers in the past decade, that was the most wonderful "pro-labor" (and "anti-poverty") program imaginable, but you never would have guessed it from the conventional labeling rhetoric.

And no rational politician, seeking to get elected in the 1990s, should be presenting himself as "anti-business," either. The genius of the American system is that it provides the opportunity to rise above such European-style class-war demagoguery in an environment of growth and broadly rising living standards.

When a bad journalist is truly restive, and can't get you to hate his personal villains as much as he would like, he has one additional labeling tool: if, for example, calling someone "conservative" doesn't turn you off as much as it does him, he can stick in the prefix "ultra-" - as was routinely done to castigate Barry Goldwater and even Ronald Reagan. (The related pejorative, "Reaganomics," is still around, even though the Reagan era actually produced a routine, mixed bag of economic programs. But that takes serious analysis, and who has time for that?)

The labeling can be equally unhelpful when the reporter is trying to be friendly. We regularly see people described as "consumer advocates, " even when the policies they are advocating sometimes turn out to limit consumer choice. And by buying into the easy labeling game, we allow Congress to distort tax laws with meaningless distinctions like "passive" and "investment" interest, and downright incorrect ones like "earned" and "unearned" income.

A wise parent knows not to label his or her children. The danger is that unpleasant descriptions will stick and influence lives that could move in other directions. Equally, in our political-economic lives, those capable of digging deeper than a 12-second sound bite should be wary of labels that pretend to do our thinking for us. The label for them should be "poisonous to your mind."