Benefit Decline on the Internet
At the end of the twentieth century, social welfare policy discourse is being transformed by the Internet. This is an important development, given that the Internet is being heralded as the new “public sphere.”1 The “contracting of America” is taking place in a new space where it turns out social science and politics easily comingle. But how do we begin to practice social science and politics in this brave new world of the information superhighway? In this chapter, I examine how social welfare policy research is affected by the extension of the metaphor of the public sphere to cyberspace. In particular, I suggest how this example of metaphorical extension exemplifies what J. M. Balkin calls “cultural software”2 raises important issues regarding the relationship of social science to social policy.
One established response to this issue follows Max Weber's suggestion that science and politics are best kept separate to ensure a credible, impartial, and scientifically authoritative social science that can, in the popular phrase, “speak truth to power.”3 Another equally established position, animated by Karl Marx, has been that science should be a motor engine for political change. To paraphrase Marx's well-worn cliché, the point of social science is not to understand society but to change it.4 However, neither response is sufficient for the virtual realities of social science and politics today.5
The following analysis takes the side of Marx but by way of a negative example. It accepts as inadequate Weber's plea for an apolitical social science as the road to political legitimacy. But politicizing social science or even just allowing for recognition of the politics already present in social science is fraught with its own dangers. The much discussed Cato Institute study of 1995 demonstrating “why welfare pays” provides a cautionary tale in this regard.6 Widely publicized via the Internet and by other means outside aca-