The McGuffin Delusion

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.

11 thoughts on “The McGuffin Delusion”

  1. It works for energy policy discussions also. Miserable on the Job?: It Could Be the Lighting By Jared Sandberg From The Wall Street Journal Online June 11, 2004

    George Tobia’s lighting epiphany came 13 years ago when, sitting in his office as the setting sun cast a rosy glow, it occurred to him to turn off the 12 fluorescent bulbs over his head. Suddenly awash in natural light, he said to himself, “This feels so good.” . . . The fax machine may be maddening and the computer may promote hostility, but no office gear can put you in a funk as quickly as fluorescent lighting. At best, it provides the light of a cloudy sky. At worst, it’s the source of physical maladies, and a creepy and synthetic downer. Far from the come-hither glow of candlelight, fluorescent bulbs cast a hell-and-back pall over everyone. . .Commercial builders love fluorescent lights because they’re so efficient. They run on about a quarter of the electricity that incandescent bulbs require, and they last roughly 10 times as long. The problem is, most office workers end up getting a lot more fluorescent light than they need, pretty much canceling out that efficiency. Many companies also leave their lights on all night long, probably because no one can find the switch. It’s an example of how corporations, as they attempt to maximize efficiency, often minimize it instead.“The lighting in most offices is much brighter than it needs to be, especially with computers,” producing glare and eyestrain, says James LaMotte, a professor of optometry at the Southern California College of Optometry.”People apply efficient lighting stupidly,” adds Naomi Miller, who runs her own design firm and formerly worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center. “There are a heck of a lot of offices that are very badly lit.”

    Hydrogen. Windpower. Nuclear. McGuffins, the lot of them. They are tools, not solutions.P.S. I am going to steal your post and quote it (with atribution and a link) over at Megan Mcardle’s place in her thread on Urbanism. It is quite apt.

  2. I’d like to nominate the intoduction of digital technology into the voting system as the greatest recent McGuffin delusion. The butterfly-ballots have been replaced widely (in Florida, at least) for millions of dollars. In empowering the most feeble minded voters among us we have potentially empowered cheaters on a grand scale.

  3. On Drugs: So I still say we nationalize the sale and distribution of all the currently illegal drugs; Use the money to reform Social Security and Healthcare while reducing the debt, and then we have our great minds genetically alter the drugs to reduce addiction. Over 10-20 years you could cripple the drug cartels, reduce crime and reform the economy.

  4. Steven, that’s right. Those bullets are dangerous! They might get together and decide to take over, like the robots in sci-fi stories. Meanwhile CA cops look the other way lest they apprehend too many criminals who are illegal immigrants.

    Dave, isn’t that what the govt is now trying to do to the tobacco companies? I predict similar results if we take the same approach to drugs.

  5. The argument that access to technology or knowledge has consequences is not delusional. You are right that human behavior using technology or knowledge is relevant, but changing the “context” that leads to such behavior may sometimes require elimination of the tools being abused.

  6. Steven, The difference is that the gov’t would control 100% of the profits from the sale! We are talking about the largest cash crop in the US!

  7. My point was that govt control of the industry would create moral hazard, as govt would then benefit from increased drug use. If we’re going to do something about drugs, it might be better to stop at legalization, rather than risk swinging over to the other extreme of having the govt encourage use.

  8. Jonathan, the state has a monopoly on hard liquor in NH. They’re no more likely to be drunk at any given time than us Massholes directly south of them.

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