Often remembered as a critique of Keynesian economics, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) contained two other important assertions about the future of liberalism. Buried in the thirteenth chapter—”The Totalitarians in Our Midst”—of Hayek’s bestseller was a discussion of the fundamental relationship between knowledge and liberalism. Hayek posited there that the humanities represented the road to freedom, whereas science represented the road to totalitarianism: “serfdom.” In particular, he singled out the idea, common among socialists at the time, that science could serve as a basis for new moral laws and social betterment. He called this idea “German” and labeled it anti-liberal. Only insights from the humanities, he claimed, could provide an ethical culture for the liberalism of the future. Hayek depicted a progressive science as authoritarian and the traditional humanities as freeing.
In a recent column in Dissent, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers takes issue with how the word “neoliberalism” has become “a linguistic omnivore” in present-day scholarship. Deeming its success “a measure of its substantive hollowness,” he untangles its various meanings (“market fundamentalism,” “commodification of the self,” “finance capitalism,” and so on) and appeals for a return to a descriptive language closer to social reality. I argue the contrary here. Neoliberalism owes its success to its distinct ideological shape, which functions thanks to, not in spite of, its paradoxes and contradictions. Although the original agenda of neoliberalism has been revised many times over, its scope and reach have steadily increased. Its commonly overlooked scientific dynamism, sponsored by private individuals and foundations, relayed by think tanks, and embedded in a growing, yet problematic “marketplace of ideas,” remains at the very heart of the neoliberal project today.