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Hobson’s choice


The birds that crowd around our feeders are not discriminating. They don’t appreciate the time I spend in the bird food store, trying to give them a varied diet. That store gets more bewildering and more alliterative every season: Cardinals Choice, Songbird Special, Finch Fantasia, Grackle Gourmet, Chickadee Chow, and so on. These are not real choices but different combinations of a few basic ingredients with imaginative names. Birds have very small brains, that’s why we use “bird brain” as an insult. But they know enough not to be fooled by creative labels. They eat everything, because it’s all just bird food.

Like the birds, we have far more choices than we need. Big-box stores overwhelm us with things we don’t want, never have wanted, and never will want. It’s hard to select from thirty different entreés on a menu. I love those old-fashioned French restaurants, now becoming rare, where one fixed meal would be served each evening. The choice was to eat it, or not.

Consider the choice of marriage partners. There are around three hundred million people in America, and they go crazy looking for the right partner in this vast sea of humanity. When I reached a marriageable age, I had spent most of my life in a boys’ school and in the Army and had only ever met about three girls. That made the choice easy.

When it comes to entertainment, our choice is unlimited. How much entertainment do we need? If you’re bored, there are 158 million books in print, 1,700 TV channels, 200 streaming services, 1,500 radio stations, tens of thousands of movies, CDs, web pages, podcasts, blogs, satellite broadcasts and dozens of other things I haven’t even heard of.

We can drive any one of hundreds of more or less identical cars, or to buy one of hundreds of kinds of pens, paper clips, breakfast cereals, razor blades, guns, or just about anything. I shouldn’t complain because I am lucky to live in a consumer’s paradise. But the burden of choice, apart from the time it takes, is that we always imagine we could have chosen better, and this anxiety increases with the number of possibilities.

In the days of the old Soviet Union, one of the great arguments against Communism was it gave its citizens very few choices as consumers. I remember wandering through the old GUM department store in Moscow back in the 1970s and being astonished at how little there was to buy. But at least it simplified things. Whatever you wanted they didn’t have it, so you saved both money and time.

Sometimes, the pendulum swings the other way, and there is not too much choice, but too little. This is proverbially called Hobson’s Choice. Thomas Hobson was the owner of a livery stable in Cambridge, England, in the late 16th century. When a customer wanted to hire a horse, Mr. Hobson would offer them the option of either taking the horse nearest the stable door or no horse.

This seems reasonable: if you wanted a horse, you got a horse. But it’s not so reasonable if you care which horse you get, and this is exactly how our political system works. We must take the old nag closest to the door, or nothing. When it comes to what may be the most important choice in our lives, do we bird brains really have a choice?

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.