Definitions

Hobson's choice

Hobson's choice

A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered, and one may refuse to take that option. The choice is therefore between taking the option or not taking it, colloquially formulated as "take it or leave it." The phrase "Hobson's choice" is said to originate from Thomas Hobson (1544–1630), a livery stable owner at Cambridge, England who, in order to rotate the use of his horses, offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.

Hobson's choice is different from:

  • a true choice between two (or more) options,
  • blackmail (Have something rendered a way you do not want),
  • extortion (do something or suffer unpleasant consequences of some other sort),
  • a Catch-22 or Morton's Fork situation (all choices yield equivalent, often undesirable results).

Early appearances in writing

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known written usage of this phrase is in Samuel Fisher's, The rustick's alarm to the Rabbies, written in 1660, as follows:
"If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson's choice ... which is, chuse whether you will have this or none."

It also appears in Joseph Addison's paper The Spectator (October 14, 1712); and in Thomas Ward's 1688 poem "England's Reformation", not published until after Ward's death. Ward wrote:

"Where to elect there is but one, / 'Tis Hobson's choice—take that, or none."

Modern usage

Hobson's choice is often misused not to mean a false illusion of choice, (as can be seen in the examples on this page, esp. in the section on American law), but simply a choice between two undesirable options, known as a Morton's Fork. Such a choice between two options of nearly equal value is more properly called a dilemma.

On occasion, speakers and writers use the phrase, "Hobbesian choice" instead of "Hobson's choice." Those speakers and writers confuse the famous philosopher Thomas Hobbes with the relatively obscure Thomas Hobson. Notwithstanding that confused usage, the phrase, "Hobbesian choice" remains historically incorrect.

In American law

Then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist of the US Supreme Court used the term in his dissenting opinion in City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 437 U.S. 617 (1978), and in citing a lower court ruling in his majority opinion in Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981).

Justice White, in the case of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983), used the term in his dissent. In using it, he was arguing that denying the House of Representatives the power to place veto provisions over the administrative agencies responsible for enacting the laws passed would leave the House with the Hobson's choice of either refraining from delegating the necessary authority, or abdicating its law-making function to the executive branch and independent agencies.

Justice Souter, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), used the term in his dissent, arguing that families with school vouchers were presented with a Hobson's choice of applying their voucher toward the tuition of any school, secular or religious, regardless of the fact that 82% of all private schools in the Cleveland City School District were parochial schools.

Justice Scalia also used the term in a foot note to Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004) to refer to a choice between invoking the marital privilege and confronting one's spouse, quoting the lower court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals used the term and explained its origins as applied to a jury's decision-making ability when a prosecutor's unwillingness to pursue a lesser-included offense (e.g. second-degree murder or manslaughter), requiring a jury to convict a defendant of the greater crime (e.g. first-degree murder) or nothing at all. See Hook v. State, 315 Md. 25, 28 (1989).

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals used the term in describing the dilemma facing a creditor between complying with applicable North Carolina law requiring notice of intent to claim attorneys fees, and the prohibition of the automatic stay of the Bankruptcy Code against taking any action against a debtor. This is not a true Hobson's choice. In Re: Shangra-La, Inc., 167 F.3d 843, 851; 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 594; Bankr. L. Rep. (CCH) P77,879; 33 Bankr. Ct. Dec. 999 (4th Cir. 1999).

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also used the term to describe a dilemma, (not a Hobson's choice), where a later-served defendant in a multiple defendant lawsuit may have to decide between foregoing their right to remove to federal court or hurriedly prepare their case and face Rule 11 sanctions. McKinney v. Bd. of Trustees of Md. Community College, 955 F.2d 924, 928 (4th Cir. 1992).

The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, used the term in 1983 to describe the situation in which a university found itself unable to comply with a provision of the Cal. Government Code due to the likelihood that to do so would be in violation of Federal Law. This is not a true Hobson's choice. See: Regents of University of California v. Public Employment Relations Bd. (1983) 139 Cal.App.3d 1037, 189 Cal.Rptr. 298.

Also in EEOC v. Lockheed, 444 F.Supp.2d 414 (2006) in reference to a choice between withdrawing an EEOC charge or forfeiting severance benefits.

In American politics, Presidential candidate Dr. Alan Keyes coined the tongue-in-cheek phrase "Dobson's Choice" (mildly criticizing Dr. James Dobson) to highlight the dilemma conservative voters face in a two-party political system while choosing to endorse the lesser of two evils.

In media

In 1847, it appeared as follows in Ch. XXIII, of The Crater: Or, Vulcan's Peak, a Tale of the Pacific, by James Fenimore Cooper. (The quotation is from the 1863 Edition, scanned by Project Gutenberg). "Several other marriages took place, the scarcity of subjects making it somewhat hazardous to delay: when Hobson's choice is placed before one, deliberation is of no great use."

Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the phrase in her novel "Herland". The term also appears multiple times in Robert Heinlein's "Job: A Comedy of Justice." Harold Brighouse wrote a play entitled 'Hobson's Choice' in which the central character Hobson is given such a choice.

Hobson's Choice is a play by Harold Brighouse, the title coming from the expression. The play was first produced in America, the first English production being on June 22 1916 in London. The story is set in Salford in 1880.

In 1954, David Lean directed a film named Hobson's Choice, starring Charles Laughton and John Mills, a winner of the BAFTA award.

The editors of The New American use the term in an idiosyncratic way which implies fraud or deceit as an essential element in a Hobson's choice.

The lead character of Early Edition received tomorrow's newspaper today and would try to avert disasters reported therein. He was named Gary Hobson, a reference to this aphorism,.

In the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, the most successful stable owner in the city-state of Ankh-Morpork is named Hobson. Also, Lord Vetinari makes use of a Hobson's Choice scenario at both the beginning and end of the book Going Postal.

In The Grim Grotto the Baudelaires and Fiona cannot get out of a room due to a poisonous fungus (the Medusoid Mycelium) growing in the doorway. They refer to it as a Hobson's choice, but this would be a misunderstanding of the term.

In the 1980s, there existed a restaurant popular with students in Cambridge, England. Its name was Hobson's Choice. The menu was: Dish of the Day.

In an episode of "Screenwipe" Chalie Brooker claimed the title of the program "Ann Widdecombe Versus Prostitution" sounded like the ultimate Hobson's choice.

Buckley's Chance/Choice: 1896 ‘Old man Parkes hasn’t “Buckley’s chance” for the Waverley seat’ (Bulletin (Sydney) 22 Feb., p. 13); 1897 ‘He has “Buckley’s show” of working the mine with them’ (Worker (Sydney) 30 Oct., p. 2); 1902 ‘It is wise to be contented/With an humble lot, you know,/Especially when it’s obvious/You haven’t Buckley’s show!’ (Truth (Sydney) 30 Mar., p. 1); 1903 ‘About the only chance Sir Teaman Lipton has of winning the American Cup is Buckley’s’ (Truth (Sydney) 22 Mar., p. 1); 1913 ‘ “I suppose you think I have Buckley’s chance of winning this case?”.... “No, I think you have about the same chance as a celluloid dog would have of chasing an asbestos cat through hell” ’ (Truth (Sydney) 6 July, p. 1); 1927 ‘Th’ ole man got th’ axe an’ tried ’is dam’dest ter cut th’ vine an’ settle it; but ’e didn’t ’ave Buckley’s’ (Bulletin (Sydney) 28 July, p. 24); 1940 ‘Buckley’s choice. A new tunic was being issued to a recruit. “We have two kinds, those too large and those too small. Which will you have?” ’ (Sentry Go: Fourth Garrison Battalion, Oct., p. 9); 1978 ‘What chance have we got if the Nips land? Bloody Buckley’s!’ (H.C. Baker, I was Listening: True Australian Yarns about Colourful Men and Women p. 171); 1997 ‘Dinner For Six was clouted for correspondence admitting that some ladies, because they were over-chubby or over-tall or over-50, have Buckley’s hope of attracting an admirer at one of their culinary soirees’ (Age (Melbourne) 15 June, p. 16).

In business

Henry Ford was said to have sold the Ford Model T with the famous Hobson's choice of "... any colour ... so long as it is black". In reality, the Model T was available in a modest palette of colors, but the rapid production required quick-drying paint, which from 1915-25 was available in only one color—black.

A contemporary example of Hobson's choice is the online store Woot! which offers one item for sale, which changes daily.

References

See also

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