Language is a silent commisar in our political and economic life. What we can say – what we even can think about – is a function largely of the words that are available for us to use. “It is hard to focus the attention upon the nameless,” is how William James, the psychologist-philosopher, once put it. One big reason that the discourse of the commons is so deficient in our public life – and why there is so little awareness of the thing itself – lies here. Where are the words that we would use?
The vocabulary of the market is beyond extensive. It exists in such profusion that it is hard to tell where it stops and the rest of the language begins. Such basic terms as value, benefit, wealth, good, are suffused with market meaning and the astigmatism this includes. (Is the “value” of a tree or of a life really what an economist says it is?) It is a good question whether economics as we know it could have evolved without the English language to serve as host.