29th Great American Think-Off
Congratulations to all 4 finalists!
Read the winning essays below
The four finalists for the 2022 Great American Think-Off are (in alphabetical order): Matthew Anderson of Sunnyvale, CA; Dennis Nau of Fergus Falls, MN; Blaine Rada of Darien, IL; and Ronald Stewart of Coon Rapids, MN. Anderson and Rada argued social responsibility should be more important, while Nau and Stewart argued personal choice should be more important. Blaine Rada won the gold medal on June 11, 2022, successfully arguing for social responsibility, while Dennis Nau, arguing for personal choice, took home the silver medal.
Read the 2022 Think-Off Finalists’ award-winning essays below:
Which should be more important: personal choice or social responsibility?
I choose social responsibility — even when it hurts.
I don’t like paying taxes (ouch!). I don’t like wearing a mask (uncomfortable!). I don’t like shoveling snow off my sidewalk at 6am before work (something as a recent Chicagoan-turned-Californian I no longer have to worry about!). Yet I do it out of responsibility to the greater community. I do it because a functional society is not just about me.
A mindset that prioritizes the me over the we creates a society where helping others beyond your tribe is seen as too much of a risk.
I bike everywhere, even in midwestern winter. One snowy Chicago day, I raced from my office to catch a train at Union Station. I hit a slippery patch on the sidewalk. My bike slipped out from under me. I landed on the concrete with a thump. As I lay on the ground, dazed, dozens of people walked by me as if I didn’t exist.
I brushed myself off, physically fine, but disturbed that no one seemed to care. It’s everyone for themself, I thought, concerned about what that meant for the broader world.
Personal liberty is core to America’s founding values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a noble cause to strive for and one many hold dear.
Yet America has changed. In 1790, 90% of Americans lived on farms — now it is 2%.
My grandma grew up on a small farm outside St Joseph, Minnesota during the Great Depression. Her family was relatively self-sufficient and isolated — she never strayed more than 20 miles from her home until she was 17.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, a metro area of 10 million people. I was constantly tapping into public resources shared by millions of others: parks, roads, schools, lakes. When you have millions of people packed into dense urban centers, utilizing scarce public resources from healthcare to transit, each person’s responsibility to the community is much greater.
A mindset that prioritizes the me over the we creates a society where shared spaces are abused by a few at a cost to all.
This dynamic plays out every time I go grocery shopping. Shopping carts litter the parking lot. These disbanded carts block spots, causing hazards and sometimes even cart shortages — all because a few folks didn’t want to walk a few additional steps to properly return the carts. Parking lots are a low-stakes situation, but the same “me first” dynamic plays out in higher stakes situations, from healthcare to gun control laws, to the detriment of society.
Even seemingly personal choices impact society. Yes, you could drive a gas guzzler and chain smoke and argue these are your personal rights. They are. But if you think your choices only impact you, they don’t. The tax may be long term (pollution and climate change) or hidden (second-hand smoke and increased healthcare costs for everyone), but it’s there.
And just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Peter Marshall, the chaplain of the US senate in the 1940s, captured it perfectly when he said, “May we think of freedom, not as the right to do what we please, but the opportunity to do what is right.” In today’s connected world, we have a greater obligation to “do what is right” than ever before.
The biggest threat to a better world is not selfish people making choices in the name of liberty, but mis-information. If we can’t agree on a shared reality, we can’t agree on what is socially responsible.
“Right” is relative — and often drawn along hyper-partisan lines. The covid pandemic really highlighted this divide. Some of my cousins truly believe covid vaccines are dangerous — for them, resisting is the socially responsible choice. To some, social distancing saved lives. To others, it unnecessarily disrupted business and education, harming lives.
As citizens, the ultimate responsibility is not just making socially responsible decisions, but educating ourselves so our “socially responsible” decisions are truly net positive — and not an illusion.
Social responsibility is more important than ever. Not just in life’s small moments, but for confronting humanity’s greatest challenges such as climate change, inequality, and global pandemics.
These are collective action problems. The solutions require people around the world to prioritize the we rather than the me.
I choose social responsibility because the future of our communities, our country and our planet require working together towards the greater good — even when it hurts.
Fergus Falls, Minnesota
In 1972 I was stationed at an army base near Augusta, Georgia. I was able to get away on weekends. In Macon, Georgia, I visited some of the antebellum mansions, extravagant beyond belief, all built with slave labor.
What if I was a young man in that area in 1860 and I had abolitionist sympathies? I would have to know that the abolition of slavery would virtually destroy the economy of most of the South. So, do you, if you’re that kid walking down that street in Macon, choose what you personally believe is right, or do you choose what’s good for your community or your state? I don’t know that there is a person alive who would think that the selfish or stupid inclinations of one individual should prevail over the common social good.
But what seems to be socially responsible at a certain time may not seem like that later.
I went to college during the Viet Nam War years. In the beginning, America’s overwhelming sentiment supported the war. “If we don’t stop those monolithic Godless Communists in Viet Nam, they’ll be on the shores of San Francisco next.” Social responsibility. Stop those Godless communists. Personal choice: I don’t believe in this war. Fifty-some thousand American dead soldiers later, nobody believes we should have been in Viet Nam.
My German ancestors lamented the fact that there was no wine in the United States. For the common good, they thought that they should bring wine to America. The Germans brought their dandelions over here to make dandelion wine. It seemed like the socially responsible thing at the time. Really.
What might seem like social responsibility for one segment of the population, may seem totally irresponsible for another segment.
Consider the situation in Germany in the thirties when schoolchildren were told, in their classes, how the evil Jews were trying to destroy their nation. Most decided, for the benefit of their country and their race, that the Jews had to be eliminated.
John Kennedy wrote a Pulitzer-Prize winning book in 1957, “Profiles in Courage.” He cited John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Samuel Houston, among others, as having the courage to oppose what the vast majority of their associates considered to be socially responsible.
History is filled with examples of individuals who differed from what was considered the common good. Copernicus. Everyone wanted the earth to be the center of the universe. What fool would disagree? The Hebrews said to Pontius Pilot, this Jesus fellow has got to go. Just listen to the crowd out there. Everyone here agrees it’s for the best. Rosa Park said, I don’t care where everyone thinks I should sit in this bus. I’m not moving. There are a lot of examples.
It would be ideal if every individual’s personal choice would align with society’s benefit. Can anyone ever agree on what is socially responsible?
The Republicans and the Democrats disagree on everything. The French and the Germans have disagreed for 1,000 years. Carnivores and Vegans disagree. I needn’t say anything about Viking and Packer fans.
To answer properly the question posed by The Great American Think-Off this year, I would like everyone to assume that the people we talk about have some intelligence and some sense of right and wrong. I know that’s assuming a lot, probably entirely too much. Nobody would ever assume that every person’s choice should trump society’s benefit. No one approves of ax murderers, people who cheat on their taxes or people who litter.
Still, social responsibility does not always align which what is morally right.
I remember, from that same army base, taking a trip to Atlanta in 1972. The major highway was closed for road repairs. I took the back roads, went through small towns lined with houses where some of the windows were simply waxed paper and roofs rusted sheet metal. People, mostly black, were in rocking chairs in front of their house. The sidewalks were wooden.
In Atlanta I saw the Axe-Handle Restaurant, a restaurant honoring Lester Maddox, a former Georgia governor who had once stood outside the door of a restaurant with an axe to stop integration. That night, in Atlanta, the restaurant was filled with customers who thought Maddox had acted for the common good, for the benefit of society. He hadn’t.
The question we consider this year has no easy answer. I’d ask you to consider my point of view.
Individual rights are a foundation of our Constitution and something I value. Having traveled to many countries, I’ve come to appreciate the freedoms we have in America, especially the freedom of personal choice. But as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “With freedom comes responsibility,” and one of our greatest responsibilities is to take care of each other.
Our social responsibilities are more important than our right to make personal choices. As the Preamble to our Constitution states, “We the People,” not “I the Individual.”
For most of my childhood, I was partially raised by my grandparents on my mother’s side, and I was influenced by their values. They were part of what is known as the World War II generation, or simply, the Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw wrote that these men and women fought not for fame or recognition, but because it was “the right thing to do.” It has been said this generation made sacrifices for the common good not seen in any generation since, and it wasn’t just the sacrifices of wartime, it was their belief that we were more important than me.
Fast-forward to today when social media is influencing our values. I’m noticing a disturbing trend, even on business networking sites like LinkedIn: rather than sharing information that could be helpful to others, many people use social media for self-promotion. They sell rather than serve. They crave attention rather than seek connection. They’re all about me, and not we.
I see a more positive trend in the business world, where profit has historically been the only priority. Today there’s more interest in companies “doing the right thing.” The Harvard Business School says this means a business should be committed to measuring not just its profits, but also its social and environmental impact. This is what’s known as the triple bottom line of profit, people, and the planet. Of course, not all companies care about these values, but according to the Forbes Human Resources Council, altruism is a must-have for companies of the future.
Please don’t think I’m pointing fingers at others while standing on a pedestal of selflessness. I can be as self-centered as they come, which is why I understand the real struggle between social responsibility and personal choice. I often get angry when I see others not doing the “right thing,” when they appear to be looking out for only themselves, but the truth is that I’m angry because I see a bit of myself in those choices, and I don’t like what I see. It’s similar to when our children do things we don’t like, and yet, like a mirror they’re only reflecting back our example.
I think most of us are a combination of “me” and “we.” So how do we reconcile this tension within ourselves to “do the right thing” when we also want to be free to do whatever we want?
For me, the side I choose may depend on the magnitude of the choice. The closest thing to a world war that most of us have faced is the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than come together like we did after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, some people have chosen sides based on whether they value our personal freedoms over our responsibilities to each other. The medical experts advised that getting vaccinated and wearing masks would help us get back to a normal life more quickly, and I’m sure my grandparents would have been perplexed by some people’s unwillingness to do something as simple as wearing a mask to keep others safe. They’d probably wonder what would happen if people were asked to make the kind of sacrifices that they made.
I recognize that some people feel that mask and vaccine mandates jeopardize our freedoms, and that we have a patriotic duty to stand up for our right to make personal choices, but remember that with freedom comes responsibility. During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, “Freedom and Duty always go hand in hand, and if the free do not accept the duty of social responsibility, they will not long remain free.”
Those are eloquent words, and our words matter. Think about the words we tell our children: be kind, clean up, don’t hit, hold hands, play fair, stick together.
The lessons children learn at home and at school often reflect our highest ideals and wishes for them. Even our Pledge of Allegiance begins with “I” but ends with “All.”
That’s a lesson worth learning.
Coon Rapids, Minnesota
In late June of 2007, I landed in Kyiv, Ukraine for the first time. I was with a team from my church planning to spend the next two weeks helping with an English course at a college in Donetsk, spending time with children at a shelter, and building relationships with those others on the team had met on prior trips. Ultimately, though, the trip was life-changing because it was the trip on which I met my adopted daughter to be for the first time.
Galyna was five, a Ukrainian girl who’d been dealt a rough hand. She’d been born to a teenager not ready for a child, and was given up at the hospital. From there things deteriorated until she was moved to the shelter our church had started visiting. Friends from a former team brought her story to us, and we decided to pursue her adoption. As expected, the transition to America and a new family had some ups and downs. Galyna had to adjust to having a family (including sisters), stuff of her own, and a new school. There were also cultural changes to work through.
From that trip, through multiple subsequent visits, and the adoption of Galyna I became acutely aware of some of those cultural differences. Ukraine, independent from the Soviet Union only since 1991, was evolving.
One of many changes was learning how to exercise personal choice after decades of the Soviet Union’s focus on social responsibility. As I tried to understand the culture of our youngest daughter, it did not take long to realize that practically speaking, personal choice is more important than social responsibility.
There are three reasons that stick out as to why individual liberty must be central for even social-oriented cultures to thrive. The first is that the lack of liberty leads to a lack of initiative. Helping with English dialogue at a Ukrainian university it became clear that older students, who had grown up under a collective mindset, had less initiative than the younger generation – and not due solely to age. What I would hear from these adults wasn’t about pursuing dreams, but of maintaining the status quo. They had fewer reasons to drive forward as they were used to gains being taken away.
Second, liberty motivates innovation. I can’t imagine Apple would have built their ecosystem of technology absent the liberty to create new things. Microsoft, Google, social media are all creatures of a system where innovation is prized. There is a noticeable overlap between the World Economic Forum’s Innovation Index and World Population Review’s personal liberty index. In Ukraine, I noticed the new and exciting things originated from America & Western Europe, and the Ukrainian things were traditional, products that had been the same for decades or longer.
Third, liberty protects integrity. Admittedly, this is imperfect protection; corruption, deceit, and injustice exist everywhere. Yet in Ukraine, corruption has been a significant problem. Bribery and other acts of favoritism were such that Ukraine was ranked 3rd from the bottom in terms of corruption through their first years of independence. Recent gains have resulted in moderate improvement, but Ukraine has a long way to go. On the other side, nations with more personal liberties – and a history of them – tend to be much higher ranked on issues of integrity. Again, this is not to say the U.S., for example, is free of integrity issues. When there is the freedom to call out misbehavior, though, there is a much greater chance it can be identified and corrected.
Initiative, innovation, and integrity seem to be byproducts of liberty and allow for thriving at a personal level. Yet I think that they also allow for social thriving that far surpasses what is available where there isn’t a place for much personal choice. I observed this with Galyna over time, as well as with my other daughters as they all reached maturity. As they gained freedom they stretched more, took greater risks, and began accomplishing greater things. They also – and I have seen this with my younger friends and former students in Ukraine – have become better able to look out for others.
Personal choice, in my experience, is more important because it not only allows the individual to strive but because it allows for society as a whole to benefit from much, much more than would exist if such choice were not allowed.
Want to know more about how the 2022 debate went? Click below:2022 Think-Off Results
The Think-Off Committee also awarded 10 Honorable Mention recognitions, including that of original finalist Hunter Liguore of Everett, CT who was unfortunately unable to participate in the Think-Off debate due to a family medical emergency. We wish Hunter and her family all the best during this difficult time.
The Honorable Mention essays will be posted soon.