I'm reading The Collapse of the Third Republic, journalist William Shirer's 1969 study of the political, economic, and cultural factors that led to France's swift and crushing defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940. About a tenth of the way into this meaty tome, Shirer notes that, in la Belle Époque, the peaceful, prosperous, wildly creative period before World War I, the French "enthroned, cultivated, practiced, [and] respected" individualism perhaps more than any other nation. They rejected the conformity of the "business-minded, mechanized world" in favor of the fullest realization of the individual liberty their Revolution had promised over a century before.

Yet Shirer thinks this strong individualism weakened France against its pending enemies:

Yet, did not this cult of the individual, so strong and so extensively cultivated in France in these years, contribute to the weaknesses of the nation and the society, which Frenchmen thought better and more blessed than any other? Did it not make for an undue selfishness of persons and closely knit families which some foreign friends thought they saw in the French? The practice of charity, for instance, of which the Anglo-Saxon were so proud, scarcely existed among these people. And did this fierce individualism not almost fatally weaken the state by weakening it government at a time when a strong state with a strong government was necessary for national survival? There was no doubt that this individualism led most Frenchmen to subscribe wholeheartedly to the axiom that the best government was the one which governed least. Anatole France never tired of reiterating that the Republic was the best regime for the French because it was the most feeble; it weighed least on the individual. "All the bonds are relaxed," he said. "And while this enfeebles the state it lightens the burden on the people.... And because it governs little, I pardon it for governing badly" [William Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1969, pp. 109&ndash110].

I cherish individual liberty. But I also cherish a healthy social contract that makes liberty possible. How do we find the proper balance?