How much money is too much? Exploring the problem of ‘obscene’ wealth

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Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett each have a net worth in excess of $100 billion. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is worth more than $200 billion. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk — Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2021 — is worth nearly $300 billion. To put this in perspective, with $100 billion, you could spend 100,000 every day for 2,740 years before you ran out of money. Or you could purchase all 32 teams in the National Football League. With $200 billion, you could add every Major League Baseball and National Hockey League club to your NFL portfolio. And at close to $300 billion, Elon Musk could add every team in the National Basketball Association. That’s right: Elon Musk’s estimated personal net worth is about equal to the total value of every franchise in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA.

Surely, no individual should have so much wealth, we are tempted to assert.

But is it so simple to conclude that no one should be worth these “obscene” amounts of money? We might not know exactly what the threshold of “too much” is; but we surely know that it is well below $100 billion. But why? And does the answer have anything to do with how the wealth was accumulated or how it is held? And if we compel someone to divest of “too much” wealth (however we define that), what would that divestment look like? How would we craft a law that would compel it? Where would the money go, and to what use would it be put? What goods would it serve, and who decides? What would we do with the money that was divested? What harm might such divestment cause?

Don’t all these questions beg the most important question: Is it even immoral to possess this much wealth? In a world where millions of people have barely enough wealth to subsist, we are tempted to assume without argument that the answer is “yes.” But if we dig a little deeply into the questions, it is not as clear as it might seem.


As Catholic Christians, we begin an examination of these questions by considering certain fundamental tenets of Catholic social teaching. “The Church makes moral judgment about economic and social matters,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “She strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships” (No. 2420). The Church’s social teaching “proposes principles for reflection, criteria for judgment, and guidelines for action” (CCC, No. 2423).

In the 1891 papal encyclical credited with beginning the distinct discipline of Catholic social teaching, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), Pope Leo XIII called the right to private property “sacred and inviolable” (No. 46). But he also wrote the encyclical in large part to address the widening disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor. And Leo precipitated a legacy of reflection that rejects both centralized planning and laissez faire capitalism as solutions to the problem. As his most articulate successor, Pope St. John Paul II, put it in 1991 in Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), the collapse of communism “removes an obstacle” to addressing questions related to the creation and distribution of wealth, but it did not bring a solution, which we cannot “blindly” entrust to the “free development of market forces” (No. 42).

These principles and criteria affirm the moral legitimacy of private ownership of property, but tempered by the affirmation that nothing we own is really ours, apart from the creative work of God. The doctrines of solidarity and common good, with their derivative principles of a preferential option for the poor and the universal destination of goods, are the interpretive lenses through which we examine the practical implications of any accumulation and distribution of wealth. But while Catholic social doctrine gives us tools to examine these questions, it does not necessarily give us easy answers to them. We must scrutinize the moral legitimacy of massive accumulations of wealth, but we must also consider practical matters that attend any economic, social or tax policy that would seek to address such accumulations.

As Pope St. John Paul II put it, “The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another” (Centesimus Annus, No. 43).


The first matter to consider is that the wealth of Bezos, et al., is almost entirely measured by their ownership of stock in the companies that they founded. Jeff Bezos does not have $200 billion in the bank. Rather, he owns about 11% of outstanding shares of Amazon stock. Elon Musk owns about 23% of Tesla and about $43 billion of SpaceX stock. Warren Buffett owns about 39% of Berkshire Hathaway. The purpose of pointing this out is to illustrate that the wealth of these men is directly related to the value of the companies that they founded, whose stock was theoretically worth zero dollars (or less) at the beginning. And the values of their companies have risen because they have provided goods and services that people want to purchase. More to the point, they have provided goods and services that have made people’s lives better, both as employees and consumers. We have created their wealth, and their wealth has created social goods.

One might respond even so (and perhaps correctly) that there’s no need for any of them to have that much stock. But what would be accomplished by forcing them to sell it, other than transferring wealth between themselves and another party? To use the cash proceeds for some good, one might suggest. But why these men and not the people who would purchase the stock? If, hypothetically, we suggest that Elon Musk should be forced to divest much of his Tesla holdings, someone has to purchase them. Why not rather suggest that those purchasers do something else with their money? Forcing Warren Buffett to sell his interest in Berkshire Hathaway doesn’t solve the problem; it merely shifts it.

And, in fact, it may exacerbate it. Any large divestment of a company’s stock always drives down the price of that stock. We saw a real example in November and December when Elon Musk did indeed sell a significant number of his Tesla shares. With each sale, the price of Tesla stock dropped sharply. Who did this affect? Musk? Nope. It affected the hundreds of thousands of people who own small interests in Tesla, either directly or through mutual funds. Other than a tax hit (which he would eventually have to pay anyway), Musk’s divestiture of Tesla stock served no social purpose, and arguably caused economic harm.

And the same would occur if, for example, Jeff Bezos sold a large part of his Amazon holdings. The majority of Amazon stock is owned by the millions of people who participate in the securities market either directly or through mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs) owned by their retirement accounts. In other words, counterintuitive as it may seem, it is at least arguable that the large holdings of these men do more social good than would forcing them to divest.

Moreover, who is to decide what the divested funds would be used for? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is possibly the largest private provider of contraception and abortion in the developing world. Their solution is not to raise the wealth of poor people, but rather to eliminate them.

In other words, if we believe that better use could be put to the massive wealth of the “obscenely” wealthy than by their holding it in securities, we have to think much more deeply than we often do. If it is a problem (and I do not deny that it is), it is more deeply systemic than merely tinkering with the margins of the creation and accumulation of wealth. But in the system we have, I cannot judge it as per se immoral for these men to possess these amounts of wealth.

Kenneth Craycraft is the James J. Gardner Family Chair in Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).