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What is Radical Thinking?

What does it mean to have radical new ideas, and why should we want them? A common connotation of the word "radical" is "extreme," and many radical views are extreme. In fact, a few dictionaries define a political radical as "someone holding political views of far left or right varieties, or simply of an extreme kind." That doesn't tell us much, since it doesn't answer the question: extreme in what way? Are his or her views extremely annoying, extremely uninformed or silly, or extremely rational?

A dictionary of slang has this definition: "Radical is a synonym for awesome or super, and is often shortened to simply 'rad'." Well, who doesn't want to have some "rad" ideas? In any case here are the more traditional and relevant definitions.

Etymology: 14th century Middle English, from the Latin radicalis, radic-, or radix, meaning root or more at root;

1: of, relating to, or proceeding from a root.

2: of or relating to the origin: fundamental.

3: marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional.

What we are calling radical thinking then, is a process that gets at the root of things. The results may seem extreme or not, but that isn't the important factor. For example, favoring huge tax cuts or huge tax increases may be extreme, but not radical. A radical idea would be one that questions the reason for taxes in the first place and/or suggests a new way to fund government.

In order to think more creatively and radically you have to look beyond the shallow factors to the deeper issues and questions involved. "Shallow," by the way, doesn't mean unimportant in this context. The tax rate is very important issue after all, but there are more fundamental issues to explore if you want radical new ideas.

Let's look at an example of using radical thinking. We'll start with the common problem of deaths from auto accidents.

Over 30,000 people die in car accidents each year. The usual approach to this problem is to pass laws and regulations that save lives. There are seat belt laws, safety features for cars, traffic laws and many other partial solutions. Lawmakers or lobbyists who propose any particular measure usually justify it with the cliché "if it saves one life it is worth it." This cliché makes a nice sound-bite, but it is nonsense if you look at it with an honesty and depth.

For example, as a nation, we could probably save over 20,000 lives by strictly limiting highway speeds to 20 miles per hour, and by taking away the driver's license of any who violate the new law. It is uncommon for anyone to die in a car crash at 20 miles-per-hour. But even saving the lives of 20,000 people isn't worth slowing things down like that, is it? We're willing to have the higher death rate, and with good reason. Such a law would be inconvenient to say the least. It would also damage the economy, by making transporting things and traveling less efficient, which is not a small matter. It costs too much (in various ways) for us to accept. We intuitively know this, and so nobody actually suggests a law making the speed limit 20 MPH.

Unfortunately, the things that are done to make driving safer are mostly arbitrary. This or that idea is thrown out there and adopted according to how the various political and business and consumer advocates fight it out. But what if we applied a little radical thinking here? What ideas would result?

Remember that radical means getting to the root of the matter, so we won't immediately consider specific regulations, devices or laws that might help. Instead, we ask why we have these things and why we don't prevent all deaths from auto accidents. The answer is that we have laws and regulations to save lives but it is too expensive to save every life. That's where we start our thinking then.

We can't save everyone who dies in auto accidents because it is too expensive to do so. Isn't that the truth? To save even half of those who would otherwise die would be too expensive. Whether the economy would suffer because of low speed limits (one way to accomplish our goal) or cars would cost $200,000 each due to the safety features required by law, we don't want to pay the cost. And by the way, if you don't think it's possible to make cars for $200,000 that would cut the death rate by at least half, you need to work on that imagination.

The radical question that needs to be asked then is, "How much is it worth to save a life?" The common sentiment is that saving a life should have unlimited value to society. Nobody really believes this, of course, or we would have that 20 MPH speed limit already. But should we put a dollar figure on life? Let's look at what happens when we don't.

The consumer, if left to choose, will only pay so much for safety. If cars really cost $200,000 due to safety features required by law, most people wouldn't buy a car, and voters would consider throwing out the government that imposed such costs. Bureaucrats and lawmakers know this, so overall regulatory costs are kept to an acceptable level (acceptable to the majority in any case).

The problem is that the cost of saving each life by way of each specific measure isn't tallied when considering legislation. Suppose new air bag requirements save 1,000 lives for a cost of $600 per car. Is this good? How do we know if we haven't assigned a value to the lives saved? What I mean is that there may have been measures that cost only $300 per car and would have saved 4,000 lives. That's eight times as efficient!

Does it matter? Of course it does. We already can agree that there is some limit to the costs we will accept in terms of safety devices required by law or traffic laws and regulations, right? If we reach that cost limit by inefficient means, we may be missing the opportunity to save 10,000 more lives just because we are afraid to put dollar figures on those lives and think about this rationally. Any regulation has a cost, and no society or person can pay unlimited costs. So if we impose costly laws and regulations for less efficient safety measures, we have the ability to save fewer lives. There is a limit to what we can do, after all.

One radical approach, then, is to ask, "How much is it actually worth to us to save a life?" or at least ask the similar question, "How much does it cost to save each life with this measure?" so we can compare our options more objectively. Looked at in this honest way, more lives will be saved, because regulations and traffic laws will be aimed at maximum efficiency in achieving results.

Radical Thinking Exercise

To train your mind in radical and creative thinking then, you need to develop the habit of looking to the root of a matter. Do this as a mental exercise for a few weeks and it will become a normal and automatic part of your thought process. With that in mind, here are a few questions for you to ponder. Think about these with a pen and paper ready if you have time. See what kind of ideas you have, but more importantly, see if you can start to ask better questions -- ones that get at the deeper aspects of an issue.

1. People argue about how to save the social security system, but what is a more radical question you could explore?

2. Prisons are a part of every society. People argue about how to punish criminals or about how long jail sentences should be. A more fundamental question is why we have prisons. What related questions can you come up with, and what possible solutions to the problem of crime do these questions lead to?

3. With a little imagination, you could design a new type of house, right? But what if you consider the "root" concept of "shelter" and why we need it? What radical new thoughts can you come up with starting there?

You can consider the above questions a "homework assignment" of sorts if you want to develop the habit of thinking more deeply.

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