A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore between taking the option or not; "take it or leave it". The phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England. To rotate the use of his horses, he offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.
According to a plaque underneath a painting of Hobson donated to Cambridge Guildhall, Hobson had an extensive stable of some 40 horses. This gave the appearance to his customers of having their choice of mounts when in fact there was only one: Hobson required his customers to choose the horse in the stall closest to the door. This was to prevent the best horses from always being chosen, which would have caused those horses to become overused.
"Where to elect there is but one, / 'Tis Hobson's choice—take that, or none."
The term "Hobson's choice" is often misused to mean a false illusion of choice, but it is not a choice between two equivalent options, which is a Morton's fork, nor is it a choice between two undesirable options, which is a dilemma. Hobson's choice is one between something or nothing.
"Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them, lay upon themselves a similar retort. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be, that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women, as to to induce them to accept it for its own recommendations. It is not a sign of one's thinking the boon one offers very attractive, when one allows only Hobson's choice, 'that or none'.... And if men are determined that the law of marriage shall be a law of despotism, they are quite right in point of mere policy, in leaving to women only a Hobson's choice. But in that case, all that has been done in the modern world to relax the chain on the minds of women, has been a mistake. They should have never been allowed to receive a literary education."
Hobson's choice is different from:
Dilemma: a choice between two or more options, none of which is attractive
False dilemma: only two choices are considered, when in fact there are others
Catch-22: a logical paradox arising from a situation in which an individual needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation
Blackmail and extortion: the choice between paying money (or some non-monetary good or deed) and suffering an unpleasant action
On occasion, speakers and writers use the phrase "Hobbesian choice" instead of "Hobson's choice", confusing the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with the relatively obscure Thomas Hobson. (It's possible they may be confusing "Hobson's choice" with "Hobbesian trap", which refers to the trap into which a state falls when it attacks another out of fear.) Notwithstanding that confused usage, the phrase "Hobbesian choice" is historically incorrect.
Historical and cultural references
Hobson's Choice is the title of a full-length stage comedy written by Harold Brighouse in 1915. At the end of the play, the central character, Henry Horatio Hobson, formerly a wealthy, self-made businessman but now a sick and broken man, faces the unpalatable prospect of being looked after by his daughter Maggie and her husband Will Mossop, who used to be one of Hobson's underlings. His other daughters have refused to take him in, so he has no choice but to accept Maggie's offer which comes with the condition that he must surrender control of his entire business to her and her husband, Will.
Henry Ford was said to have offered the Ford Model T with the famous Hobson's choice of "any color...so long as it is black". However, Ford Model T's from the earliest days were actually offered in a variety of colours.
In Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha (1983), Justice Byron White dissented and classified the majority's decision to strike down the "one-house veto" as unconstitutional as leaving Congress with a Hobson's choice. Congress may choose between "refrain[ing] from delegating the necessary authority, leaving itself with a hopeless task of writing laws with the requisite specificity to cover endless special circumstances across the entire policy landscape, or in the alternative, to abdicate its lawmaking function to the executive branch and independent agency".
In Monell v. City of New York Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) the judgement of the court was that
("[T]here was ample support for Blair's view that the Sherman Amendment, by putting municipalities to the Hobson's choice of keeping the peace or paying civil damages, attempted to impose obligations to municipalities by indirection that could not be imposed directly, thereby threatening to 'destroy the government of the states'").
"The traditional basis for invalidating laws that prohibit the exercise of an obligatory religious practice is that it confronts the adherents with a Hobson’s choice between observance of their faith and adherence to the law. There is however more to the protection of religious and cultural practices than saving believers from hard choices. As stated above, religious and cultural practices are protected because they are central to human identity and hence to human dignity which is in turn central to equality. Are voluntary practices any less a part of a person’s identity or do they affect human dignity any less seriously because they are not mandatory?'".
In The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket, the Baudelaire orphans and Fiona are said to be faced with a Hobson's Choice when they are trapped by the Medusoid Mycelium Mushrooms in the Gorgonian Grotto: "We can wait until the mushrooms disappear, or we can find ourselves poisoned".
^Oxford English Dictionary, Editor: "Amazingly, some writers have confused the obscure Thomas Hobson with his famous contemporary, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The resulting malapropism is beautifully grotesque". Garner, Bryan (1995). A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 404–405.
^Snicket, Lemony (2004) The Grim Grotto, New York: HarperCollins Publishers p.145 - 147
^http://www.literaturepage.com/read/balzac-father-goriot-104.html (Father Goriot, page 104 in Chapter 1); "Dans ces conjonctures, je vais vous faire une proposition que personne ne refuserait. Honoré de Balzac, Œuvres complètes de H. de Balzac (1834), Calmann-Lévy, 1910 (Le Père Goriot, II. L'entrée dans le monde, pp. 110-196); viewed 9-2-2014.