There is widespread recognition that neoliberal rhetoric about ‘free markets’ stands in considerable tension with ‘really existing’ neoliberalizing processes. However, the oft-utilized analytical distinction between ‘pure’ economic and political theory and ‘messy’ empirical developments takes for granted that neoliberalism, at its core, valorizes free markets. In contrast, the paper explores whether neoliberal intellectuals ever made such an argument. Using Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman as exemplars, our reading of canonical neoliberal texts focuses on author framing gestures, particular understandings of the term ‘science’, techniques of characterization, and constructions of epistemological legitimacy. This enables us to avoid the trap of assuming that these texts are about free markets and instead enquires into their constitution as literary artefacts. As such, we argue that the remaking of states and households rather than the promotion of free markets is at the core of neoliberalism. Our analysis has significant implications. For example, it means that authoritarian neoliberalism is not a departure from but actually more in line with the ‘pure’ neoliberal canon than in the past. Therefore, neoliberalism ought to be critiqued not for its rhetorical promotion of free markets but instead for seeking to reorganize societies in coercive, non-democratic and unequal ways. This also enables us to acknowledge that households are central to resistance to neoliberalism as well as to the neoliberal worldview itself.