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Though the actual definitions vary between jurisdictions, in general, a direct tax is a tax imposed upon a person or property as distinct from a tax imposed upon a transaction, which is described as an indirect tax. The term may be used in economic and political analyses, but does not itself have any legal implications. However, in the United States, the term has special constitutional significance because of a provision in the U.S. Constitution that any direct taxes imposed by the national government be apportioned among the states on the basis of population. In the European Union direct taxation remains the sole responsibility of member states.
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 value added tax (VAT) 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.
It is thus that a tax upon the necessaries of life operates exactly in the same manner as a direct tax upon the wages of labour. ... if he is a manufacturer, will charge upon the price of his goods this rise of wages, together with a profit; so that the final payment of the tax, together with this overcharge, will fall upon the consumer.
The Pennsylvania Minority, a group of delegates to the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention who dissented from the document sent to the states for ratification, objected over this kind of taxation, and explained:
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.
U.S. constitutional law
In the United States, the term "direct tax" has acquired specific meaning under constitutional law: a direct tax is a tax on property "by reason of its ownership" (such as an ordinary real estate property tax imposed on the person owning the property as of January 1 of each year) as well as a capitation (a "tax per head"). Income taxes on income from personal services such as wages are indirect taxes in this sense. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has stated: "Only three taxes are definitely known to be direct: (1) a capitation [ . . . ], (2) a tax upon real property, and (3) a tax upon personal property." In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court held that a penalty directly imposed upon individuals for failure to possess health insurance, though a tax for constitutional purposes, is not a direct tax. The Court reasoned that the tax is not a capitation because not everyone will be required to pay it, nor is it a tax on property. Rather "it is triggered by specific circumstances."
In the United States, Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution requires that direct taxes imposed by the national government be apportioned among the states on the basis of population. After the 1895 Pollock ruling (essentially, that taxes on income from property should be treated as direct taxes), this provision made it difficult for Congress to impose a national income tax that applied to all forms of income until the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913. After the Sixteenth Amendment, Federal income taxes are subject to the rule of uniformity but not the rule of apportionment.
In the context of income taxes on wages, salaries and other forms of compensation for personal services, see, e.g., United States v. Connor, 898 F.2d 942, 90-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,166 (3d Cir. 1990) (tax evasion conviction under 26 U.S.C. § 7201 affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; taxpayer's argument – that because of the Sixteenth Amendment, wages were not taxable – was rejected by the Court; taxpayer's argument that an income tax on wages is required to be apportioned by population also rejected); Perkins v. Commissioner, 746 F.2d 1187, 84-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 9898 (6th Cir. 1984) (26 U.S.C. § 61 ruled by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to be "in full accordance with Congressional authority under the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution to impose taxes on income without apportionment among the states"; taxpayer's argument that wages paid for labor are non-taxable was rejected by the Court, and ruled frivolous).
Direct taxation in India
Direct tax is a form of collecting taxes applicable on the general public by the means of their personal income and wealth generated and collected through formal channels and worthy government credentials such as Permanent account number and bank account details.
Section 2(c) of the Central Boards of Revenue Act, 1963 of India defines "direct tax" as follows:
- ″(1) any duty leviable (or) tax chargeable under-
- (i) the Estate Duty Act, 1953 (34 of 1953.);
- (ii) the Wealth-tax Act, 1957 (27 of 1957.);
- (iii) the Expenditure-tax Act, 1957 (29 of 1957.);
- (iv) the Gift-tax Act, 1958 (18 of 1958.);
- (v) the Income-tax Act, 1961 (43 of 1961.);
- (vi) the Super Profits Tax Act, 1963 (14 of 1963.); and
- (2) any other duty or tax which, having regard to its nature or incidence, may be declared by the Central Government, by notification in the Official Gazette, to be a direct tax.″  
Direct taxation in other countries
Tax policy in the European Union (EU) consists of two components: direct taxation, which remains the sole responsibility of member states, and indirect taxation, which affects free movement of goods and the freedom to provide services. With regard to European Union direct taxes, Member States have taken measures to prevent tax avoidance and double taxation. EU direct taxation covers, regarding companies, the following policies: the common consolidated corporate tax base, the common system of taxation applicable in the case of parent companies and subsidiaries of different member states (to avoid withholding tax when the dividend qualifies for application of the EC Parent-Subsidiary Directive, the financial transaction tax, interest and royalty payments made between associated companies and elimination of double taxation if the payment qualifies for application of the EC Interest and Royalties Directive. Regarding direct taxation for individuals, the policies cover taxation of savings income, dividend taxation of individuals and tackling tax obstacles to the cross-border provision of occupational pensions.
- Britannica Online, Article on Taxation. See also Financial Dictionary Online, Article on Direct taxes.
- Wealth of Nations, Book V Chapter 2
- The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention, of the State of Pennsylvania, to their constituents.
- See, e.g., the United States Supreme Court case of Fernandez v. Wiener, in which the Court stated that a direct tax is a tax "which falls upon the owner merely because he is owner, regardless of his use or disposition of the property." Fernandez v. Wiener, 326 U.S. 340, 66 S. Ct. 178, 45-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) ¶10,239 (1945).
- A capitation is defined as a "poll tax". Black's Law Dictionary, p. 191 (5th ed. 1979).
- A poll tax is defined as a "capitation tax; a tax of a specific sum levied upon each person within the jurisdiction of the taxing power and within a certain class (as, all males of a certain age, etc.) without reference to his property or lack of it." Black's Law Dictionary, p. 104
- See generally Pollock.
- Opinion on rehearing, July 3, 2007, p. 20, Murphy v. Internal Revenue Service and United States, case no. 05-5139, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 2007-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,531 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (dicta).
- NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___ (2012).
- NFIB, 567 U.S. ___, 41 (2012).
- Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 240 U.S. 18 (1916).
- "The Central Boards of Revenue Act, 1963". Retrieved January 1, 2019.
- "Section 2, Central Boards of Revenue Act, 1963". Retrieved January 1, 2019.
- Parent Subsidiary Directive, by Salvador Trinxet Llorca
- European Union Direct Taxes, by Salvador Trinxet Llorca
- Foster, Robert (1895). Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Historical and Judicial. 1. Boston: The Boston Book Co. pp. 415–423.