[FOUNTAIN]Mr. Hobson and no real alternatives

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[FOUNTAIN]Mr. Hobson and no real alternatives

What is a “Hobson’s choice?” According to a dictionary, it is a choice of taking the thing offered or nothing. For instance, you are not given a choice of having rice or bread, but a choice of having rice or skipping the meal. In other words, Hobson’s choice is no choice at all.
The phrase originates from Thomas Hobson, an owner of a stable in Cambridge, England in the 17th century. The customers who paid him to borrow horses were mostly Cambridge students. He suspected that the students would not take care of his horses well and was not willing to rent out the best horses. So he put worn-out horses near the stable door and made a policy that the customers could rent his horses in the order of their closeness to the door or not at all. The students had to choose whether to rent the horse next in line or not rent one at all, and hence, Hobson’s choice came to refer to a choice with no alternative.
For some reason, we are often faced with similar political situations that reminds us of the dilemma of the Cambridge students 400 years ago. One of the most notable examples is the president’s claim to “risk my presidency.” A decade ago, President Kim Young-sam made that extreme pledge when he declared he would prevent the import of rice. Most recently, President Roh Moo-hyun commented in a similar context regarding the investigation of his presidential election campaign funds and the capital relocation plan. It might sound like the president is boasting of his unyielding determination and burning bridges behind him. But by shutting off other alternatives, the president ends up presenting a Hobson’s choice.
We have seen many drastic situations where no alternatives are given. We have heard many pledges that risk the fate of the administration. Maybe because of its straightforwardness, the extreme promise makes compromise and negotiation even harder.
Otto von Bismarck called politics “the art of the possible.” In other words, politics is a process of reaching the best possible solution through cool judgment on social issues. For the best results, we need to consider as many choices and alternatives as possible. The “take it or leave it” approach of Hobson’s choice will only bar the possibility of a resolution. Shouldn’t “open politics,” the catchphrase of Mr. Roh and the ruling party, be the politics of alternatives?


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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