Conservative critiques of excessive government intervention in the economy are usually quite abstract and feel distant from the lives of the average student. Whether the distance is chronological, as with the late Soviet Union, geographical, as with the tragedy unfolding in Venezuela, or experiential, as with a Cato Institute study on the adverse effects on long term real GDP growth of government intervention, most conservative arguments against socialism seem far away from the concerns of ordinary Americans. But UT students can feel, on a small scale, the dangers of putting a single large institution in control of the economy right here on campus if they only know where to look.
With that in mind, here is another question for you: why is Jendy’s always closed?
Okay, it is not always closed, nor are most restaurants on UT’s campus, but it can sometimes feel this way. This column was inspired when I had an hour to kill on campus and needed a meal. So, of course, I tried the Wendy’s in Jester, which was closed. Weird — their posted hours say they should be open. Let’s try Jesta Pizza — also closed. Cyprus Cafe, which just opened after six months of renovation? Closed. Torchy’s? Closed. Everything in the SAC? Closed. The one thing that was not closed was Jester Market, which is why my “dinner” consisted of an overpriced bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. So why are all of these restaurants closed at 6:30 on a Tuesday in the middle of a sea of college students — tens of thousands strong? When the profit motive ought to be yelling at them to take the money off of their hungry (albeit now very annoyed) customers?
The answer, I submit, has to do with how UT runs its restaurants. The various restaurants at UT all have varying levels of autonomy, with, for example, the late Chick-Fil-A in the SAC being more independent than Jesta. However, the university makes many of their decisions, either directly or as conditions of being allowed to operate a restaurant on campus. This means that many of the decisions that would usually be made by business owners, who have an incentive to maximize profit and provide a quality service for as many hours of the day as demand, make it profitable to do so. Still, the decisions are made by anonymous bureaucrats at University Housing and Dining. These people neither know nor care about whether random closures will affect the business, let alone the students, and this attitude seems to affect the nominally private restaurants. With all of that being said, it is noticed that Jendy’s is comparatively reliable compared to Jesta, who are far better than the UT Dining Hall. This scale of competence matches nicely with the control UT Housing and Dining exert over the organization.
Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to eat in the UT dining halls will see another example of how quality can quickly slide when a large state-run organization is placed in charge of something with no incentives for success or punishment for failure. Whether it be the bad food, the hour-long lines, or the general lack of customer service, what we get is far below the service, given at a far higher price, that we wouldn’t expect even from Jendy’s, let alone a privately held restaurant. And this is during regular times. During last year’s Easter, the dining hall was closed most of the weekend without so much as a courtesy email to residents. There was very little food during the winter storm for over a week, even though the food trucks outside of Dobie managed to get resupplied and keep wait times relatively short to boot. UT has blamed many of the problems on “supply chain problems,” as in the photo above, but the free restaurants in West Campus seem to be managing just fine.
As if to emphasize my point, just before finishing this piece, I found out that Cyprus Bend’s grill was only open until 2:00, even as nearly half a dozen employees loitered behind the counter with, apparently, nothing to do.
The lesson is one which basic economics and history have told time and time again; this time played out at the micro-level before our eyes: things done by private individuals with incentives directly tied to success or failure tend to do well, things done either by large organizations, with byzantine incentive structures, or by individuals with poorly aligned incentives do badly. Throughout history, this has played out again, and again, and again, and again. Now, we see it at UT.
In terms of solutions, it is probably a necessary evil that most of the restaurants and dining halls on campus must be under the thumb of Housing and Dining to one extent or the other. However, we should strive to minimize this as much as possible and, when we cannot, thank the Lord that most restaurants are still relatively free of government created inefficiently. Unlike sectors in which the government has tried to “help” (I am looking at you, healthcare and education).
So the next time you are waiting in line for half an hour in Kins for a rubbery chicken sandwich and a too dry brownie, remember that the only thing that stands between you, and a life full of long lines for mediocre products, is the free market.