So the Atlantacabby tells his fare, Prof. Allan Bloom, that he has just gotten out of prison where, happily, with the help of psychotherapy, he "found his identity and learned to like himself." Observes Bloom: "A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself." But rebuilding life in a spirit of humility is not the American way. The indispensable element of modern rehabilitation is the acquisition of self-love. You would think that narcissism, excessive and exclusive self-love, might qualify as a vice. In fact, in today's America, it might be the ultimate virtue or, more accurately, the prerequisite for all virtue. It is, after all, common and endlessly repeated wisdom that one cannot begin to love others until one has come to love oneself. In the age of Donahue, the commandment is: Love thyself, then thy neighbor. The formulation is a license for unremitting self-indulgence, since the quest for self-love is never finished and since the obligation to love others must be deferred while the search continues. No distractions please. First things first. The ideology of self-love enjoyed currency during the '70s as a form of psychic recreation for the Me Generation. It has now been resurrected as a cure for the social pathologies of the '80s, for the drug and other behavioral epidemics that ravage the nation and particularly the inner cities. The conventional wisdom is that people are acting so self-destructively because of an absence of self-worth. Until they can learn to love themselves, they will continue to damage both themselves and others. A riveting example of this kind of logic was displayed last week on Ted Koppel's three-hour extravaganza on Washington's drug epidemic. The last speaker, a woman named Patricia Godley, took the stage and held it with a mesmerizing confessional. She confessed variously to having been a convict, an addict, and a failed parent. (A son, who grew up illiterate and disabled while she was addicted, had recently been killed in the city's drug wars.) She was struggling now to learn to value herself. She demanded help. Her plea to mayor and moderator and audience and anyone else who would listen was: "Make me know that I am worth fighting for. . . . Make me feel like I can do it." Koppel so congratulated her for "telling it like it is" that he ended the show right there, saying that there was nothing more to be said on the subject. She had told it like it is, or at least as we would like to hear it. If the problem of the underclass is that of self-worth, then all we need is some good psychotherapy and a few "I am somebody" recitations, and we are on our way. Easier that than to seek the roots of underclass misery in economic, social and family structures. Daniel Moynihan has pointed out recently that in the inner city there is an alarming new trend: a descent from single-parent to no-parent families as the mother is engulfed in the crack culture. We are producing a generation of orphans. Societies have occasional success bringing up orphans, but on a large scale it is a losing proposition. The welfare state was originally called upon to supplement families. It is now called upon to substitute for them, and that is clearly impossible. The state cannot undo the devastation that comes from parental abandonment. Nor is it equipped to train parents. Cried Patricia Godley, "What can you do to help me be something I have never been, a parent?" The answer, properly, is "almost nothing." We can give you day care and food stamps and supplement your income, but teaching a mother to mother is not something that the state is designed to do. The culture, the community, the family have to do it. If they don't, it does not get done. And when it does not get done, the harm that results is not undone by mantras about self-worth. Indeed, today's conventional wisdom that drug abuse and alcoholism and sexual irresponsibility come from an absence of self-worth seems to me to be precisely wrong. Drugs and sex and alcohol have but one thing in common: they yield intense and immediate pleasure. That is why people do them. Indulgence in what used to be called vices is an act of excessive self-love. It requires such regard for one's own immediate well-being as to be oblivious to any harm that indulgence might cause others, even one's own children. The answer to Patricia Godley is, first, that there is no way the state can make you love yourself or your child. And second, that even if there were, loving yourself certainly is not the problem. Nor is loving your child. Every mother loves her child. What is hard is to sacrifice for the child. And that requires not self-love, but its opposite, self-denial. No one has a good answer to the pathologies that wrack the inner cities. But the latest prescription so glibly dispensed -- more self-love -- is an illusion. Bloom calls our attention to the modern distinction between the "inner-directed and other-directed" person. It is now believed that the former is "unqualifiedly good" and that "the healthy inner-directed person will really care for others." Bloom's response is admirably concise: "If you can believe that, you can believe anything."