Deterrence, lessons, and examples: pour encourager les autres

A typical report on recent approaches to those seeking entrance to the U.S. at the Mexican border, “Here Are the Facts About [REDACTED]’s Family Separation Policy” by Maya Thodan in Time magazine on the 20th:

Administration officials have often characterized these policies [of interviews and hearings] as “loopholes” that are exploited by those seeking to enter the U.S. Some administration officials have suggested that the “zero tolerance” policy could serve as a deterrent for other migrants who are seeking to come to the U.S.

The idea is that applicants should all be rejected, and in a way so savage that others would be deterred from applying. The aim of the policy is, in Voltaire’s pointed phrasing, pour encourager les autres.

Deterrence can work in several ways. Often it’s hoped that the very existence of a severe punishment will serve as a deterrent to offense — that, for example, a death penalty on the books will dissuade people from committing murder.

Or punishment is (ad)monitory, a warning:

either it’s hoped that meting out punishment to an offender will serve as a deterrent to further offense: as we say, this is to teach you a lesson; let this be a lesson to you.

or it’s hoped that a punishment will serve as a deterrent to others: as we say, we’ll make an example of you.

It’s the last case that’s at play in the Mexican border situation. From Merriam-Webster online:

idiom make an example of: to punish (a person who has done something wrong) as a way of warning other people not to do the same thing – Although it was only his first offense, the judge decided to make an example of him and sentence him to prison.

This way of talking makes no explicit reference to those for whom the punishment is intended as a warning. The Voltairism mentions them (though it doesn’t characterize them). Again from M-W online:

quotation (from Voltaire) pour encourager les autres: in order to encourage the others  — said ironically of an action (such as an execution) carried out as a warning to others

(In the Mexican border case, the (potential) offense is the misdemeanor of entering the U.S. without papers, against which a number of punishments can be deployed: incarceration, separation of families, deportation, all managed as unpleasantly and contemptuously as possible.)

But the full Voltaire quotation (from Candide) is richer than this, and it has a historical context:


The context in Candide (1759), in the Project Gutenberg translation:

[Candide:] “And why kill this Admiral?”

[Dr. Pangloss:] “It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him.”

“But,” replied Candide, “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral.”

“There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”

That is, the Admiral was executed for underperformance in battle, as an example to others. This is not simple invention on Voltaire’s part. From the Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Minorca (1756) and the fate of Admiral John Byng in that encounter:

The Battle of Minorca (20 May 1756) was a naval battle between French and British fleets. It was the opening sea battle of the Seven Years’ War in the European theatre. Shortly after the war began British and French squadrons met off the Mediterranean island of Minorca. The French won the battle. The subsequent decision by the British to withdraw to Gibraltar handed France a strategic victory and led directly to the Fall of Minorca.

The British failure to save Minorca led to the controversial court-martial and execution of the British commander, Admiral John Byng, for “failure to do his utmost” to relieve the siege of the British garrison on Minorca.


… Byng’s execution is referred to in Voltaire’s novel Candide with the line [above].

I’ve long been fond of the pointedly ironic pour encourager les autres — or its English version to encourage the others, I don’t insist on the affectation of quoting in French– especially if delivered in creaky voice or some other notable vocal quality.


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