Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 7, 2007
POLITICS: Neither A Surgeon Nor A General
Yuval Levin had an interesting article in the most recent National Review (subscription only) explaining, against the backdrop of recent charges by Congressional Democrats of undue politicization of the Surgeon General's office, that the Surgeon General job really has nothing else to do but make politically provocative pronouncements, given that the real responsibilities of the office have long since been given away to the Department of Health and Human Services and subsidiary agencies like the CDC and NIH:
When the post was created in 1871, the surgeon general was head of the Marine Hospital Service, which cared for American merchant sailors. Under the first surgeon general, John Maynard Woodworth, the MHS took the form of a uniformed pseudo-military service, and was assigned some crucial public-health responsibilities, most notably the maintenance of quarantines. In 1889, the larger U.S. Public Health Service was created, and the surgeon general was made its head. The MHS, meanwhile, was folded into the PHS and became its Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service assigned to help prevent the spread of disease and bring medical care to areas in need. Today, it continues to perform these functions through its roughly 6,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, engineers, and other uniformed officers.
This is much the same problem that besets the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. All government agencies are inherently political to one extent or another, but agencies that have no real executive responsibilities have no check on becoming simply mills for churning out propaganda.
Levin's argument, which is worth reading at length, is that the Surgeon General has basically come to be an oracle of public health, one of the last bastions accepted by the Left - along with environmentalism - for the role of public moralizer (albeit the kinds of morals promoted on the Left). But really, the article can just as easily be read as a brief for abolishing the office entirely. There are more than enough agencies already charged with actually carrying out the job of improving public health. We shouldn't have to pay another one to preach the government's gospel to us.