2022 Was the Year of Hubris

The tendency of those in power to topple or embarrass themselves by overreaching should provide a lesson to policy makers.


When Russian tanks rolled across the border into Ukraine on February 23, much of the world seemed to believe the conflict would be over quickly—that the brave Ukrainians would be crushed by the Russian war machine, one of the world's largest and most expensive militaries.

Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin shared that opinion is unclear, but there's no doubt that the invasion was a display of his own overconfidence: in his military, in the expected acquiescence of Ukraine, and in the world's willingness to let a dictator redraw the boundaries of a well-established, independent European country. It hasn't gone as planned. Instead of a quick victory, the war has turned into a churning, bloody stalemate. The U.S. estimates that Putin has lost 100,000 of his own troops while conquering relatively little new territory (to say nothing of the massive humanitarian disaster the war has unleashed).

Hubris—the arrogant pride that goeth before the fall—has been a fundamental part of the human experience since long before the ancient Greeks wove it into stories as the metaphorical Achilles heel that toppled heroes and villains alike. It's always been with us, but hubris had a real moment in 2022. Politicians insisted that government action was necessary to rein in social media platforms, but the market has largely done that on its own. This year also saw the spectacular collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried's crypto-trading-platform-turned-Ponzi-scheme, and with it the exposure of the hollowness of Bankman-Fried's "effective altruism" ideology. An anticipated "red wave" failed to materialize for Republicans in the midterm elections, the promise of "transitory" inflation was punctured on almost a monthly basis, and China was forced to ease up on its "zero COVID" strategy after lockdowns triggered protests and demands for freedom unlike anything seen there in decades.

On a moral scale, everything on that list pales in comparison to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, of course. And there's a big difference between overconfidently risking your own property and destroying what belongs to someone else.

Even so, the tendency of those in power to topple themselves (or at least lose a lot of money and support) by overreaching should provide a lesson to policy makers and the rest of us as we head into 2023 about the volatility and unpredictability of the modern world. It's not just those in power who are susceptible to hubris; it's anyone who thinks he knows what's going to happen next.

Indeed, what happened to Facebook and Twitter in 2022 should put to bed the hubristic declarations of people like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who has argued for government action to break up Big Tech. The market is beating her to it.

Facebook's revenue and user base are spiraling downward, and the site's parent company, Meta, announced in November that it was laying off 11,000 workers. Zuckerberg had a rough year, but Musk might have had it even worse. He lost $25 billion on January 27 after Tesla announced that it would delay delivering some vehicles due to supply chain issues. That was the fourth-steepest one-day drop in a person's wealth in the history of Bloomberg's personal wealth index. And that was well before Musk decided to go on his ego-driven Twitter misadventure, which has blown another $39 billion hole in his net worth, according to Bloomberg's numbers. Users unhappy with Musk's leadership have fled to other platforms, accelerating an existing trend of greater competition and fragmentation in social media.

Call it creative destruction. Call it voting with your virtual feet—like the ones that might someday be attached to those weird avatars in the metaverse. Either way, it should inject some much-needed humility into the debate over the future of Big Tech.

Meanwhile, Putin wasn't the only foreign leader left exposed by overconfidence this year. China's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic had been a point of national pride, and had been offered as evidence that authoritarian countries were better equipped to handle modern crises than democracies. Then, a new wave of the virus exposed the problems with China's zero COVID strategy—and protests against the resulting lockdowns forced the government to ease some of its strictest rules, including allowing people with mild cases to quarantine at home rather than in mass quarantine facilities. "Even in a historically authoritarian country, you can only keep your boot on someone's neck for so long," Reason's Emma Camp observed earlier this month.

American leaders who fret about the threat of a rising China—and who use that threat to counterproductively make America more like China—should take notice. China's zero COVID strategy has also sunk its economy and lowered expectations for the near future. "Until recently, many economists assumed China's gross domestic product measured in U.S. dollars would surpass that of the U.S. by the end of the decade," The Wall Street Journal reported in October. Now, more are wondering "if it ever will."

Politically, it seems like the year of hubris has once again demonstrated why democracy is the least-bad form of government. Democratic countries still make big mistakes of course, but it's more difficult to launch a massively destructive war or lock your own citizens inside their homes for extended periods of time when you have to occasionally gain the consent of the governed to stay in power.

China's economic issues are tied up in its authoritarian ones. Simply put, democracies seem better positioned to handle a world where everything is in constant flux because elections serve as a sort of market mechanism.

"Authoritarian systems have a tendency toward groupthink and ideological rigidity, frequently proving unwilling or unable to properly assess information and change course when existing policies prove disastrous," Vox senior correspondent Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier this month. During 2022, he wrote, "authoritarian governments that were supposed to outcompete democracy floundered, while some of the biggest democracies staved off major internal challenges."

All governments are susceptible to hubris by their very nature. But democracy, like a free market, injects humility and uncertainty into the system. Those are benefits, not flaws. That's something I can say with utter confidence.