Europeans have a higher tolerance for government intrusiveness than do Americans. I don’t think anything in that statement will surprise my American friends, nor yet my European ones. But there’s saying that, and then there’s the ways it plays out. This brings us to the example of the ORF—that is, Austrian public broadcasting. Specifically, the TV and radio.
Americans, familiar with PBS’ sad-sack pledge drives, weepy pleas to “get up off your good intentions and get to the phone,” and tote bags that look like they came with the dinginess pre-applied, will find the behavior of the ORF unrecognizable. Basically, if you have a television or radio in Austria—even if you literally never turn it to ORF (which is impossible, because ORF has multiple channels, including regional ones for each state in the country, plus a sports network)—you are obligated to pay up. It’s not that cheap: somewhere around 30 euros per month. And you pay that even if you are also paying for cable.
Ok, you say, that’s fine, my American tax dollars go to pay for PBS even though I hate Garrison Keillor (as you should). And that’s true, they do—but the IRS collects those dollars and gives them to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Here, the ORF come to your house and demand to inspect the interior, and if they find a television or theoretically even just a radio there, they can slap you with a fine (which can be up to around 2,000 euros) and then make you pay monthly for all eternity. In principle, they can even fine you if you just have a computer, since you can watch or listen to the ORF online, though the TV is the biggest target. All this for the dubious privilege of watching Dancing Stars (yes, it’s the same show, and no, the stars are not any more famous).
Let me reiterate—inspectors roam the city, insisting on entering people’s private homes and looking at their media devices. And not only that! If the ORF has reason to believe you are malingering on your dues-paying duties, I am told by a semi-reliable source that they can return to your house with the police, and force you to let them search the place for televisions!! I have even heard a rumor from a highly reliable source (that being my spouse, who is German, not Austrian) that the ORF has special television-detecting vans in which they drive around the city, searching with their TV-dedicated radar vision for apartments that have televisions but are not paying the monthly fee.
A couple of thoughts on this. First of all, what the fuck, Austria? The whole benefit of the European method of taxation is that it’s supposed to be more efficient than ours—everybody pays a giant load of taxes in return for a whole bunch of services. Why, of all things, is the ORF the one form of payment done piecemeal? They should just do what we still (barely) do in the US, and tax everyone on the grounds that the shared airwaves are a limited public resource. Also, how inefficient is it to go house to house and ring doorbells, especially since every single person in this country by now knows better than to answer the door during the day? (The foreigner is of course the last to learn. Sigh.)
Lastly, can you imagine anything like this in the US? Just how many PBS inspectors would have to get shot in the face on people’s front porches (or in the back, running down their front steps) before we would call it off? Even I—a law-abiding citizen of quiet habits—would under no circumstances let the police in my house in the absence of a valid search warrant and the advice of a lawyer. (Do bear in mind, however, that the Austrian police are much less violent and terrifying than their American counterparts. Even so.) And not just me; even dedicated right-wingers would start believing in the virtues of the search warrant.
Seriously, Austria. Throw off the chains of ORF oppression. You should not have to hide your televisions!!