Auto Industry Gave Detroit a Non-choice


More than a century ago, Henry Ford marketed the Model T automobile by informing customers they could have the car painted in any color they wanted, as long as that color was black.

This kind of non-option is termed a “Hobson’s choice,” named after Thomas Hobson (1544-1630), an English livery stable owner. Hobson enforced a strict policy that forced customers to take either the horse nearest the stable door or none.

Hobson’s well-intentioned system was simple. A returning horse went to the end of the line, furthest from the stable door so the animal could rest. Rotating horses helped ensure the steeds received equal wear, but Hobson’s heavy-handed enforcement of the policy didn’t make the stable owner very popular.

Since Ford’s invention of the automobile, the industry has repeatedly given Michigan a kind of Hobson’s choice. A burgeoning auto industry became the backbone of Michigan’s economy. Automobile manufacturing soon out-shadowed Detroit’s reputation for other things and we became known as the “Motor City” and the “automotive capitol of the world.”

Soon, everything in the tri-county area — and indeed, the entire State of Michigan revolved around cars.

Workers in the southeastern part of the state were sometimes forced to choose between being a line worker at a car factory or unemployment. Such was the dominant influence of the automotive industry in our Michigan.

Meanwhile, other states did just fine without having a reputation for a dominant service or product. Illinois, for example, developed a diversified industrial platform. Chicago, a city just 265 miles west of Detroit, thrives on its broad-based economic appeal.

All of this is especially important now that Michigan citizens are coming to understand that the automotive industry may never be the same again.

This is quite an opportunity, really. The absence of a dominant industry will allow other markets to emerge, which could give Michiganders more than just a Hobson’s choice. It’s good to have options, eh?