I think Frederic Bastiat was one of the most insightful writers on state power. He starts off his major work, The Law, with a bang in the introduction:
If every person has the right to defend even by force-his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right-its reason for existing, its lawfulness-is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force-for the same reason-cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.
Try telling that to the governments that want to use eminent domain to condemn properties! Bastiat then goes on to define plunder, how the law can be used to commit plunder, and why it should not be. I’ve thought for years (12 at least, since I first read Bastiat) that The Law is a must-read, for he makes an incredibly persuasive case for individual rights and limited state power.
And in a posting that kicked me off on this, AtlanticBlog quotes one of my favorite Bastiat lines:
The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.