I appreciate that you’re offering an alternative economic explanation of philosophy’s unpopularity. But if we’re going to presuppose neoliberalism, too, we’re making the problem too easy. That is, if we’re going to ask not just whether academic philosophers have to con students to distract from philosophy’s unpopularity, but what the utility of philosophy is, then the answer writes itself: philosophy’s benefits aren’t tangible and philosophy may even be alienating and psychologically detrimental, so naturally in a materialistic, neoliberal, happiness-oriented society, philosophy seems like a waste of time.
That’s surely one superficial reason why philosophy is unpopular in certain societies. The problem is that the neoliberal assessment is based on confusions, albeit on some fostered by the professionalization of philosophy as a discipline that has to compete with the sciences for funding. Philosophy was originally a lifestyle, not just a body of knowledge. The extent to which philosophy’s been reduced to technical epistemology would be a sign of underlying scientism and neoliberalism.
I’m more interested here in philosophy itself, not in the Western prejudicial views of philosophy. The heart of the matter, as far as I can see, is that the asking of philosophical questions is itself typically subversive. Mind you, objective, scientific knowledge is equally so, the difference being that science indirectly distracts from the philosophical upshot of that empirical knowledge by supplying us with the means to engineer technologies that superficially improve our lives (while threatening us with extinction via the side-effects of that very progress). Notice, by the way, how scientistic economists externalize (i.e. ignore) the environmental costs to make science-centered business seem like a net gain in utility.
Philosophy’s benefit is supposed to be enlightenment, but that can’t easily be measured so scientistic philosophers focussed on technical pseudoproblems while the self-help industry and Protestant religions took over the lifestyle questions in the West.
Still, this point about how philosophy is supposed to be a way of life undermines your economic analysis, since it’s not about picking up facts from canonical anthologies but learning how to think philosophically and struggling with the personal problem of existential authenticity. The therapeutic aspect of philosophy has been medicalized and taken over by psychologists and the like. Regardless, everyone should study philosophy to learn how to see-through BS, including their own delusions.