Really, it wasn't all that much: The President merely told us we can't have everything we want the minute we want it. Yet his staff called it the "sky-is-falling speech." Why all this excitement?

The fact is, Carter is challenging what appears to be a basic American tenet - the concept of Plenty.

You go into a cafeteria and ask for a paper napkin, and they give you six. You ask for a match with your cigarettes, and you get four matchbooks. Anywhere else in the world you would have to pay extra for matches.

When you visit friends for dinner, people embarrass you by heaping on more food than you can use. In thousands of American homes, food and supplies are stored in closets and freezers: Some families could be snowed in for a year and not even run short of toothpicks.

It can be a compulsion. A Boston family I know keeps three giant freezers at its summer place, and the cellar looks like the back room of a Safeway store, with cartons of toilet paper and S. S. Pierce dinner napkins up to the ceiling. These are people who have three cars and several servants, who live less than a mile from the village store, and who probably could arrange deliveries if they wanted. So why do they have to play store?

I think it's a security thing. It's a tribal memory of the Depression, a poor boy's determination never to be hungry again. It goes back to the Pilgrims: After starving through a New England winter or two, the settlers wanted to celebrate their new-found control over their environment, their stores of grain, their hunting skills their economic alliance with the Indians.

It is an American farm tradition to this day, a tradition which has outlived by generations the kind of farm lifestyle Norman Rockwell used to paint, with its table so crowded that dishes are piled upon dishes, stewed tomatoes atop pickled beets, corn piccalilly resting among homemade rolls, turkey slabs buried under mashed yams.

There is nothing like a full belly to make you feel secure.

Of course it's much bigger than America. Find a period of anxiety anywhere in history, and you will find people overeating to such a degree that gluttony becomes a social grace: Rome during the Fall; England in the Middle Ages; Germany after World War II. Throughout the 19th century, in this country and elsewhere, fatness was a sign of prosperity. The man whose children had double chins was considered a success.

It is a tradition that has persisted among the earning classes - the already powerful and rich being above striving and almost universally svelte - in the face of warnings about cholesterol, heart attacks and that curious modern noun, overweight.

Clearly, we are dealing with a great force, strong enough to overcome even our survival instinct. What happens when it is frustrated?

What happens is that individuals begin to violate the social contract. People start hoarding. Remember all those gas tanks that were installed in backyards during the last gasoline shortage? Remember when Johnny Carson made a joke about being out of toilet paper, and within two days the nation's supermarkets were out of toilet paper?

In 1974 a British TV comic broke everybody up with his oneliner about a strike in the Siberian salt mines. By the end of the week you couldn't buy salt anywhere in England. All it takes is 50,000 prudent shoppers buying one extra pound of salt apiece. (Prudent and silly: Since when does England buy salt from Siberia?)

But Americans go beyond hoarding. Still clinging as we do to our self-image as pioneers, we have trouble with queues. Drivers will line up to buy gas, but they won't like it. Tempers run short in a queue.

What it all comes down to is a kind of childishness, a sulky revenge against the world for mistreating us so. And once we can see that, it becomes perfectly natural to accept the President as father figure wagging a finger at us.

For all our democracy, for all our 18th-century Age of Reason Constitution, American reverts under stress to a family. A big family, well over 200 million strong, but nevertheless a family.

President Carter called out situation "the moral equivalent of war." Because war, or the threat of it, is the one thing that can bring us together. Ask the british: Didn't they invent the queue during World War II? So far from resenting it, they have developed a whole etiquette of queueing that we will doubtless learn.

In other words, he was encouraging us to think in terms of a national family threatened by, say, eviction. Or poverty.