Scrap free healthcare and give everyone a £1,000 cheque, says Freakonomics author Steven Levitt

The man behind Freakonomics and Think Like a Freak reveals how he'd stop NHS freeloaders. David Cameron, listen up.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 09 Jan 2015

You and Stephen Dubner have just brought out a new book, Think Like A Freak. What made you write it?

After writing two successful books together – Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics – we figured that the world’s tolerance for a third book that looked like the first two was pretty low, so we decided to do something different.

We noticed that people seemed to enjoy the problem-solving aspect of our work. Readers would email us with all sorts of conundrums, ranging from ‘should I go to college or get a job?’ to ‘how do I get this girl to like me?’ to ‘why isn’t there enough parking in my town?’ We wondered if we could boil down our approach to tackling questions into a how-to guide for thinking differently – thinking, that is, like a freak. We thought that we would come up with some unbelievable insights that were new to mankind but actually there’s nothing magical about the way we think; most of it relies on common sense. Anyone can think like a freak – and yet so few people do.

You’ve spoken to David Cameron about the problems of socialised healthcare. What would you do with the NHS?

When people don’t pay the true cost of something, they tend to consume it inefficiently. I have a simple suggestion for the NHS and it goes like this: at the beginning of the year, the Prime Minister should send a £1,000 cheque to every citizen of the UK, along with a letter telling them they can spend it on whatever they like. In return, they’re now going to be liable for 50% of any NHS treatment or service they use up to the cost of £5,000. From £5,000-£10,000, they’re liable for 20% of the fee. Anything above that, and treatment is free. That would save the government money and keep the voters happy. I don’t have any real evidence that it would work but I have bounced it off four or five cab drivers in London. Most of them were supportive.

Who did you write Think Like a Freak for?

No-one has ever asked me that question. I think we wrote the book for ourselves. We tried to have fun with it. Strangely enough, our best audience tends to be 18 year old boys. Our books seem to have a kind of Catcher in the Rye quality about them. We challenge conventional thinking and we’re not afraid to use the f-word now and again.

What kind of people think like a freak?

The most innovative thinkers tend to be childlike and see the world through a different lens. Entrepreneurs are classic ‘freaks’. Their tolerance for embarrassing themselves is much higher, they reject rigid hierarchies and they leave steady, well-paid jobs in the pursuit of fun.

Why do so few people think like a freak?

I can only guess that our education system doesn’t reward thinking enough. I was able to get all the way through Harvard without ever thinking for myself. My strategy was pure memorisation. I figured that if I could remember every single thing that the professor wrote on the board, and every single thing in the books on the syllabus, I would get an A – and I almost always did.

I was shocked when I entered the world of business. During my first day as a management consultant, my boss came in with a stack of data and said, ‘By the end of the week, I want you to work out how pharmaceutical companies can get their new drug applications approved more quickly with the FDA [the US food and drug regulatory body].’ When I asked him how, he replied, ‘We’re not paying you $32,000 a year to do all the thinking for you’. I panicked. I didn’t know anything about the pharmaceutical sector. From that moment on, I always tried to think for myself.

We’re so used to so-called experts telling us what to do and how to behave that we’ve lost the confidence to think for ourselves.

What are you going to write about next?

I always try to turn my hobbies into money-making endeavours. My all-time favourite hobby is golf and, since I’ll never make money from actually playing it, I thought I’d write about the freakonomics of it, helping amateur golfers to improve their game. Stephen Dubner and I have teamed up with former world number one golfer Luke Donald and his coach Pat Goss for this and expect to have a book out by Father’s Day 2016.

Think Like A Freak

Allen Lane, £12.99

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