Edinburgh Fringe 2019
An engaging exploration of how Adam Smith (or at least the economic principles he espoused) became the Father of the Fringe.
The Edinburgh intelligentsia are gathering down at Panmure House, the last home of Adam Smith, curious to explore the hypothesis that the father of modern economics is also the reason why the Fringe actually exists. Well, that’s what polymath Dominic Frisby, sometime voice-over artist, comedian, financial writer, Guardian columnist and author, would have us believe.
Beginning with a succinct but thorough review of the principles behind Smith’s treatises on economics, this fascinating hour explores how, two centuries on, Smith’s principles are those that the Fringe espouses, even if the latter arrived at this happy state of affairs somewhat serendipitously.
Adam Smith’s best known work is perhaps the catchily titled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But whilst he has been hailed as the founder of modern economics, there was much more to Smith than just this particular book. His importance as a moral philosopher is now better understood following recent research into his other seminal work The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his other works on the nature of justice, science and the expressive arts are also now recognised as having been major contributors to the Scottish Enlightenment in the late 18th century, a movement that forever changed the country from that of backward and bigoted to one that led the world in social philosophy, social change and religious freedom.
And if you look beyond the more controversial passages of Wealth of Nations, you will see that Smith did not simply believe in the primacy of man’s selfishness or the purity of markets. The ideas he explored and the conclusions he drew are far more realistic and humane. For him, the quality of economic growth was more important than the quantity and that people will always act with self-interest yet moderate their behaviour to ensure that no harm is caused to others.
But what on earth is the link to the modern Fringe, a behemoth of a festival that now comprises nearly 60,000 performances of 4,000 shows? Well, Smith believed that both sides benefit from trade and that restrictions on trade make people poorer (Donald Trump please note). The Fringe is the quintessential free trading environment. And it’s grown largely because there are no restrictions on who or what may be performed and we, the general public, act as both regulators and curators to those artists presenting their work for our enjoyment, or otherwise.
With no vetting of who is performing what, there’s the right to fail. And learn. And maybe fail again. But ultimately (hopefully) succeed. And make money. The classic process by which entrepreneurs build businesses that add value to society and to people’s lives. Free trade, in fact. And that’s why the Fringe has long outgrown its staid, risk-averse rival the Edinburgh International Festival which ironically now ensures it runs contemporaneously with its rival so that it can benefit from the volume of people looking for entertainment.
Frisby is an engaging and charismatic presenter of a topic that looks as dry as toast on paper yet flows like the champagne and canapes that were available to the departing and delighted audience (for a suitable fee, of course). Resplendently hirsute, Frisby strides around the impressive venue rather in the manner that his subject matter apparently did when dictating his seminal works. Illustrating his points with a wide range of informative slides, we’re never far away from a cracking one-liner or comic aside, with even an ironic dig at Brexit thrown in for good measure, without his even mentioning that “B” word.
This was undoubtedly an extensively and well-researched, engagingly delivered and a thoroughly enlightening hour of education and entertainment that’s well worth seeking out.