A house burned down last weekend, and 10 members of one family died. On the television news a young black who had jumped from a second-floor window was tearless. He was tearless from shock as he began to recite in a flat voice: "Three sisters . . . I lost three sisters . . . two uncles . . . five cousins . . ." Or was it the other way round? One had really ceased to count the terrible catalogue he gave.

The electricity had been cut off in the house the day before. An unpaid bill -- something like $800. The fire had probably, it seemed, been caused by a candle. The neighbors gave vent to their outrage. It was in Baltimore; it was Preakness day. I did not copy down the exact words of one neighbor but remember them well enough: "When you think what the state of Maryland will take in today alone at Pimlico . . ."

The anger was strong: "$7 million today at Pimlico alone -- and they can't arrange a loan for one poor family." A woman cries in savage desperation: "You try . . . You try your best . . . Every day, you go on trying -- and then something like this happens . . . " It was not fanciful to hear in these voices the anger of the people on the streets of Paris in 1789 -- and Marie Antoinette's legendary answer: "Let them eat cake."

Give them Pimlico. A friend who had come for a drink before dinner said, almost under his breath: "It could take only one fire like that -- in Baltimore, in Washington, in Newark, wherever -- and we could have a very long hot summer. One unpaid bill -- the electricity cut off -- and this city could be in flame." Over his voice, I heard the woman: "You try . . . You try your best . . ."

Is that not all that another woman said, some years ago, when she refused to go to the back of a bus? Rosa Parks did not publish a manifesto. She appealed to no bill of rights. She said: "I'm tired." She might as well have said: "You try . . . Every day you go on trying . . ." And when the day of reckoning comes, will we not hear Nero fiddling? Our own amiable Nero -- fiddling while Washington burns.

If the tinder is dry, a candle may start a fire and burn a city. What tinder could be more dry than the latest figures on black unemployment? Almost 19 percent of all blacks are unemployed, compared with some 9 percent of the whole population. But before the next figures, one's mind goes almost blank. Of all teenagers in the labor force, 23 percent are unemployed; of black teenagers, 48 percent are unemployed.

"The truth is probably even worse," an economist said to me the other day. For one must remember whom the Labor Department is counting. It is counting the black teenagers who are either working or looking for work. It is not counting the teenages who have given up looking for work in the conventional labor market. "If you could count those," said the economist, "the figures would be much worse."

He scarcely has to make the point. We have only to use our eyes and ears in this city to realize that statistics are always only the beginning of a story:

Not all of those who are unemployed are destitute.

Not all of them are subsisting on welfare, or at least not only on welfare.

Not all of them maintain themselves by crime.

Many of them are earning money by working, but not by work they find in the official labor market.

One knows enough white, middle-class men and women, especially the young, in one's own circle of acquaintances who are working, even quite hard, even fairly regularly, but not at jobs in the official labor market.

They would prefer jobs in the official labor market. (Most of them.) They are not doing what they are doing just for the fast buck or to evade taxes. They would prefer a good job with its security and the promise of a career suited to their abilities and the standard of life which the commercials offer them. But in the absence of such jobs, they create, almost by word of mouth, their owm labor market.

It is going on all around us, among our own children and the children of our friends, not only in America, but in Britain and France, in Germany and the Netherlands: in these prosperous, post-industrial, post-modern, post- capitalist, post-socialist, post-whatever Western societies of ours. A ghastly reflection of it is even on trial just now in Washington for attempted murder.

How much more must it be going on where we, the whites, can only peer over the fence and stare: in all the streets where, in sheer self-defense, a community, shut out from society, creates its own laws -- and its own labor market. It is not that the black unemployed are poor -- although many of them tragically and increasingly are -- which should make us tremble for our society. It is that they are leaving us.

Here are our leaders -- these people who have the nerve to call themselves conservative -- and they do not care a button that their policies do not conserve society. One can point one's finger north, east, south and west and say to them: "There you have created an unofficial labor market, and where you create an unofficial labor market, you create a community with its own laws which stands outside your society."

A white journalist has the right to say to a fashionable, conservative, black publicist, Thomas Sowell: "You are traducing the truth. You are not telling it like it is, because, among other things, you are forgetting how many whites, how many quite privileged whites, are creating their own labor markets and therefore their own laws, outside our societies as they lumber to their self-destruction."

To their 1789.

Anyone who has read even a smattering of the vast literature -- memoirs, diaries, letters -- about the state of France before the evolution of 1789 knows -- and knows with horror -- that it was the true conservatives who quivered to the first tremors of the earthquake. It wasn't the liberals; it wasn't the intellectuals; it wasn't Voltaire; it wasn't Rousseau. It was the true conservatives who said: "The ground is shaking."

The ground is shaking now in our so precious, so striving, so few and once so brave democracies. The ground is shaking because we are losing our own people to their own labor market and their own laws. It used to be that we could speak of "ghettos," of people "beyond the Pale," or just "the other side of the tracks." But when the ghetto has become the city -- then the ground begins to shake.

When our society increasingly becomes a number of self-administering communities -- their own labor markets, their own laws, their own strong moralities -- we can kiss goodbye to peace even at our hearths. The trouble with that 48 percent of unemployed black teenagers is that it takes only the smallest imaginative sympathy to realize that the figure is little different on our side of the tracks.

We have the advantages. We cover it up. We fund our psychiatrists. We bring back three-piece suits to pretend that there are still three-piece jobs. In every home, the bill is unpaid, the electricity is cut off, and the candle spills. "You try . . . You try your best . . . Every day you go on trying . . ." And then "something like this happens."

Is there one of us who does not feel on the wrong slope of a volcano at the wrong moment? Why are we so fascinated by disaster? After all, it is not a big deal when a volcano blows its top and takes 61 lives. The tremors are in society, they are in ourselves. And read all of history. Where do the revolutions come from? If there are no jobs, there are no laws. There are only unofficial jobs, and so unofficial laws.

It needs to be said that, after knocking about life for more than 50 years in many of its surprising corners, some simple facts emerge:

Most people, although there are some exceptions, do not like, or even wish, to be criminal.

Most people do not like even to be illegal.

Most people like work.

Most people want to work even more than they want sebx.

Most people like to work legally.

For one thing, it is easier. It was all said by Bob Dylan, in one of his great rebukes to those who took his early music as an excuse for license instead of a challenge to liberty: "If you choose to live outside the law, you must obey the law more stringently than anyone." You dare not be caught speeding -- or even jaywalking -- because the smallest inquiry could open up your lawlessness.

Most people do not live without laws. The danger to any society is when communities within it create their own laws. The source of that always -- in ancient Rome, France in 1789 or present-day America -- is lack of legitimate work.

Honest jobs: That's law. There is no other.