The McGuffin Delusion arises when someone argues that an instance of technology, and not the individual who controls the technology, represents the source of a problem. I think this delusion shows up in a lot of technology-related political discussions.
I named it after Alfred Hitchock’s description of his plot device, a McGuffin, that every character in the story searches for believing it will solve their problem. In Hitchock’s movies, however, the real issues are the relationships between people, not the physical objects they seek.
A good example of the McGuffin Delusion can be found in the “Mad Bomber” movie. The intrepid hero spends 90% of the movie running around finding and disarming the increasingly clever bombs created by the villain. Superficially the movie is about the bombs but the resolution of the plot only occurs when the bomb maker is caught.
The McGuffin Delusion is at the heart of the “gun control” movement. Advocates of “gun control” speak as if the guns, the technology, are the problem, and more importantly, are what is being “controlled.” In actuality, the problem is not the weapons themselves but the people who misuse them. Whether an individual has a felony conviction is a far more powerful predictor of whether they will either shoot someone or get shot themselves than whether they have immediate access to a firearm or not. By placing the focus on the guns, the gun-control movement obscures the fact that the thing that gets “controlled” is people.
The Cold War-era debate over nuclear weapons also exhibited the McGuffin Delusion. The nukes themselves were portrayed as being the basic problem. We had “nuclear freeze” and “ban the bomb” movements. Yet the problem of extinction-level nuclear warfare disappeared not because the weapons themselves went away but because a particular group of people with a particular ideology lost political power. The world lived under Damocles’s sword for forty years because of communism. When communism disappeared, so did the threat of massive nuclear annihilation. Yet most of the debate revolved around the weapons and what to do about them.
The “Drug War” is also expressed as a problem with a McGuffin. We expend enormous resources and sacrifice many lives trying to control access to certain chemicals, when the real problem of drug addiction lies with each individual addict. All drug addiction is driven by the psychological needs of individuals, not the presence of any particular drug. Addicts are on a nearly continuous pursuit of an altered mental state. If they are denied access to their favored drug they will substitute another. Most addicts use a mix of drugs continuously. Yet we have designed a huge body of law around the idea that if we could just control the physical drugs themselves the problem of individuals’ intense desire to escape themselves would somehow disappear.
I think we adopt the McGuffin Delusion for political debates as a form of political euphemism to keep us from having to baldly address the rude truth that problems are caused by human beings, and that a political solution means coercing and dominating those human beings. Gun-control advocates don’t want to say what they really believe: that the vast majority of ordinary citizens are too immoral and irresponsible to be trusted with firearms. Leftists in the Cold War did not want to address the fundamental problem of communists. Drug warriors don’t want to have to admit that drug addicts destroy themselves and that drug addiction stops when the addict decides to stop it and not before.
Everybody finds it hard to sell the political idea of directing State power against real human beings. The McGuffin Delusion lets us all pretend that the State power falls upon lifeless objects. Like all self-delusions it trades a realistic description of the problem for an emotionally comforting one. Like all self-delusions, it can lead people to someday collide with a brutal reality.