Dostoevsky on reason versus desire

Notes from the Underground, F Dostoevsky, Oxford Classics, 1999.

I, for instance, quite naturally want to live in order to satisfy the whole of my for living and not just in order to satisfy my rational capacity, which is about one-twentieth of my capacity for living. What does reason know? Reason knows only what it has managed to find out (the rest, perhaps, it will never discover; that’s no comfort, but why not say it?), whereas
human nature acts as a whole, by everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously; and even if it lies, it still lives. I suspect, gentlemen, that you’re looking at me with pity, you will tell me again that an enlightened and educated person, in short, the sort of person man will be in the future, cannot
knowingly desire something disadvantageous to himself, and that’s mathematics. I’m in complete agreement, it really is mathematics. But I repeat to you for the hundredth time, there is only one instance, just one, when man may deliberately, consciously desire something injurious, foolish, even extremely foolish, namely: in order to have the right to desire even something very foolish, and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is intelligent. You see, this very foolish thing is your caprice, and in actual fact, gentlemen, it can be more advantageous to us all than anything else on earth, especially on certain occasions. But in particular it can be more advantageous than any other advantage in a situation where it leads us to obvious harm and contradicts the soundest conclusions of our reason on the subject of advantages—because in any case it preserves the thing that is most important and
precious to us, which is our personality and our individuality. Some people assert that this is the most precious thing of all to man. Desire may, of course, if it wants, coincide with reason, especially if it is not misused but used in moderation; that’s useful and at times even laudable. But very often, perhaps more often than not, desire completely and obstinately disagrees with reason and. . .and. .. and do you know that this too is useful and sometimes even very laudable? 

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Swiss Railway System

Swiss Railways from Diccon Bewes book, Swiss Watching:

“Gravity-detying mountain trains might be the most famous part of the Swiss railway network, but they actually make up only 150 of the 5000 kilometres of lines nationally. Trains are the workhorses of the Swiss economy, transporting not just tourists and commuters but cargo as well. An impressive 63 per cent of transalpine heavy goods vehicles travel by rail through Switzerland, twice as much as in neighbouring Austria.Loading those mammoth trucks on to trains means less pollution, less traffic and less noise, so everyone wins. But the wonder of the Swiss railway system is not the cargo routes through the mountains, or the big-name rides, such as
the Glacier Express, or even the intercity lines packed with the customers. The wonder of the Swiss transport network is the local services.

Decades after Dr Beeching cut such lines in Britain, the Swiss still regard them as an essential part of the national infrastructure, no matter if they aren’t so well used. The crowded routes bring in the cash to subsidise the less-used ones so that the whole network survives. All very forwardthinking, anti-Darwinian and anti-capitalist to someone brought up on privatisation for profit. For the Swiss it’s local services for local people, and occasionally the odd tourist, to ensure that no community is left off the transport map. To achieve that goal there are buses as well, designed to complement the railways, not replace them. A spidery network of 798 routes with over 2100 Postbuses, all of them bright yellow, carries 121 million passengers a year11 to places the trains can’t reach. But, this being Switzerland, the timetables are coordinated, so that passengers can change quickly from train to bus and back again. The Swiss make it all look so simpie, as if that’s the natural order of things. As if that’s the only way public transport should be. Such coordination is only possible because the Swiss plan the whole system as one.”

Housing in Switzerland

From Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes.

“Ironically, the recent economic crisis affected the Swiss far less than many G20 members, mainly because the housing market is as stable as the franc. No big booms or crashes because most people rent not buy. Only 35 per cent of Swiss own their own home, a figure that drops to 11 per cent in cities like Bern,25 almost exactly the opposite of the British market. It’s partly a cultural thing – owning property is not the be-all and end-all of life – but it’s also practical, as you need a 20 per cent deposit. Some people rent the same flat all their lives, but that’s seen as a risk-free, sensible option not a waste of money.  

Everyone renting has its advantages. No property ladders mean no snakes, so while you might not make a fortune in houses, you’re unlikely to lose one either. Negative equity, what’s that? Estate agents are not ten a penny on the high streets, newspapers are not full of property ads and television isn’t packed with endless variations ofmakeover, developing or relocation programmes. You have to watch German TV for those. To buy or not to buy is a question the Swiss ask about lots of things but rarely houses. 
The best thing is that roads are not blighted by a forest of For Sale signs. Instead, you can see what look like four anorexic Martian spaceships sitting in vacant plots of land. These giant wooden or metal tripods show the dimensions of any new building, with their height and position corresponding exactly to that of the proposed building. This rule applies  to every construction project in Switzerland, including highrises, which need special Meccano-style pylons tethered with wires to show how tall they will be. It might look odd, but it gives everyone a good idea of what’s planned and a chance to complain if they object. Planning permission not just by committee but by common consent.”

Edward Luttwak on the logic of peace leading to war in late 19th century 

“Peace can be the origin of war in different ways, even though peace is only a negative abstraction that cannot contain any s elf-destructive phenomenon, as war contains the destruction that eventually destroys war itself. Nevertheless, the condition of peace, that is the absence of war, can create the precondition of war, for example by dissuading the peaceful
from maintaining persuasive defenses, encouraging potential aggressors to plan war. Often in history, peace led to war because its conditions allowed demographic, cultural, economic, and social changes that upset the balance of strength that had previously assured peace. Having no substance of its own, the state of peace cannot disturb anything, but it does indifferently favor the diverging evolution of human capacities and inentalities, without regard to the factors that inhibited war. It was thus that
the famously pacific Germans came to regard themselves as a warrior nation by 1870, in unfortunate symmetry with the French, who had yet
to outgrow their martial self-image. In the crisis of that year, Bismarck’s German government wanted war in confidence of victory, while the French government of Napoleon III could not avoid war, because it could not admit that Germany had become the stronger power.”

Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of Peace and War, Harvard University Press, 2001, pg 67.

Tony Judt and the liberation of the will

“But at least war, like racism, offers clear moral choices. Even today, most people know what they think about military action or racial prejudice. But in the arena of economic policy, the citizens of today s democracies have learned altogether too much modesty. We have been advised that these are matters for experts: that economics and its policy implications are far beyond the understanding of the common man or woman—a point of view forced by the increasingly arcane and mathematical language of the discipline. 

Not many ‘lay people’ are likely to challenge the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of the Treasury or their expert advisors in such matters. Were they to do so, they would be told—much as a medieval priest might have advised his flock—that these are questions with which they need not concern themselves. The liturgy must be chanted in an obscure tongue, accessible only to the initiated. For everyone else, faith will suffice. 
But faith has not sufficed. The emperors of economic policy in Britain and the US, not to mention their acolytes and admirers everywhere from Tallinn to Tbilisi, are naked. However, since most observers have long shared their sartorial preferences, they are ill-placed to object. We need to re-learn how to criticize those who govern us. But in order to do so with credibility we have to liberate ourselves from the circle of conformity into which we, like they, are trapped. 
Liberation is an act of the will. We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation—no less than our crumbling physical infrastructure—unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition.”
Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010. 

Tony Judt on conformity

“It is tempting to conform: community life is a lot easier where everyone appears to agree with everyone else, and where dissent is blunted by the conventions of compromise. Societies and communities where these are absent or have broken down do not fare well. But there is a price to be paid for conformity. A closed circle of opinion or ideas into which discontent or opposition is never allowed—or allowed only within circumscribed and stylized limits—loses its capacity to respond energetically or imaginatively to new challenges.”
Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010.

Tony Judt – Ill Fares the Land

“As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders. Relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the postwar decades. In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well. Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job. How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else? Perhaps we might start by reminding ourselves and our children that it wasn’t always thus. Thinking ‘economistically’, as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans. There was a time when we ordered our lives differently. “