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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 always being chosen, which would have caused those horses to become overused.
An ultimatum game is a form of Hobson's choice.
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.
Hobson's choice is different from:
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.
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 Will. The play was adopted for being filmed several times: in 1920 in silent film by Percy Nash, in 1931 by Thomas Bentley, in 1953 by David Lean, and in 1983 in a TV movie.
The following examples are not Hobson's choices; they are dilemmas or double binds.
In INS 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".
See also Monell v. City of New York Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) ("[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 on municipalities by indirection that could not be imposed directly, thereby threatening to 'destroy the government of the states'").
In the American television series Early Edition (1996–2000), a man receives tomorrow's newspaper the day before it is published, and must decide which of its stories presents problems that he can solve, and at what cost to himself and others; the character's name is Gary Hobson.
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".