Here’s a bit of useless information for you: The term “Hobson’s choice,” which we use to describe a pick of lousy alternatives, is named for Thomas Hobson, a livery operator in 16th-century Cambridge. When someone wanted to rent a horse from him, he could take only the next one up in the stable, no matter how unsatisfactory, or none at all. That’s the way business was done back in merry old England.
In today’s unstable world, things often are the same. Certainly, President Barack Obama, Congress and the country face a Hobson’s choice when it comes to Syria and how to respond to what was a monstrous nerve-gas attack apparently by the forces of Bashar al-Assad against his own men, women and children. Assuming he and his military leaders were in fact responsible, and the evidence seems clear, a determination must be made of how to punish such despicable and dangerous conduct, and even whether to punish.
For good reason, the administration forcefully argues that a civilized nation cannot just stand by without sending a clear message that those employing chemical weapons face dire consequences. But also, for good reason, opponents contend that the United States has no business getting involved in still another war, particularly without a clearly defined purpose and exit strategy, in case the initial missile attacks would drag the U.S. into another deadly black hole of combat. The truth is that the options are all crummy: do nothing or do something, even if it’s wrong.
All too often, the latter is the better one. That certainly was the case back in 2008, when the bottom was falling out of the world economy. The alternative to financial disaster was giving trillions of dollars to the bad guys to clean up their mess and stop a collapse, providing a foundation for a dismal economy that is still struggling to gain traction. Doing anything but that would have caused sheer panic. Also, let’s face it: What ultimately became the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare, if you prefer — was really just a weak alternative to our medical system that combines mediocre outcomes with upwardly spiraling costs. Insurance companies still run the show, but all the lobbying and political demagoguery left us with improvements that were just modest but still enough to send Republicans into a frenzy of sabotage. They’ve managed to scare millions of Americans just as the reforms move forward or slide into the ditch.
In addition, it’s not a stretch to believe that the budget debate is really about the lesser of two evils. Although a few economists contend that deficits and debt are acceptable, they’re drowned out by conservatives on one side, who insist that the only way to afford Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, food programs, education and the like is to sharply decrease the expenditures for them. On the other, there are the progressives, who resist the cuts, saying the government’s humane functions must take precedence. Both arguments are flawed. No wonder there’s a stalemate. Thus far, compromise, what there is of it, has only perpetuated a depressing status quo. Even worse, it has set the stage for a fast-approaching new debacle deadline. There are just a few weeks to come up with some deal that will keep the federal government fully functioning and another that raises borrowing authority and avoids a ruinous default of the United States of America’s sovereign debt, which would demean and definitely weaken a proud country — ours.
Given the ambiguities of reality, it’s always amazing to witness opponents getting immovably passionate about one point of view or the other. At least in the case of Syria, many members of Congress admit that they face a tough decision. Are they isolationists, or do they hastily acquiesce to a potential rush into war? It’s the kind of choice this nation has faced many times, the Hobson’s choice. Which horse do we ride into a scary future?
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.