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General meaning – Direct Taxes In general, a direct tax is one imposed upon an individual person (juristic or natural) or property (i.e. real and personal property, livestock, crops, wages, etc.) as distinct from a tax imposed upon a transaction. In this sense, indirect taxes such as a sales tax or a GST are imposed only if and when a taxable transaction occurs. People have the freedom to engage in or refrain from such transactions; whereas a direct tax (in the general sense) is imposed upon a person, typically in an unconditional manner, such as a poll-tax or head-tax, which is imposed on the basis of the person’s very life or existence, or a property tax which is imposed upon the owner by virtue of ownership, rather than commercial use. Some commentators have argued that “a direct tax is one that cannot be shifted by the taxpayer to someone else, whereas an indirect tax can be.”
The unconditional, inexorable aspect of the direct tax was a paramount concern of people in the 18th century seeking to escape tyrannical forms of government and to safeguard individual liberty.
The distinction between direct and indirect taxation was first extensively discussed by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations, as in the following passage:
“ The power of direct taxation applies to every individual … it cannot be evaded like the objects of imposts or excise, and will be paid, because all that a man hath will he give for his head. This tax is so congenial to the nature of despotism, that it has ever been a favorite under such governments. …
The power of direct taxation will further apply to every individual … however oppressive, the people will have but this alternative, either to pay the tax, or let their property be taken for all resistance will be vain