Civics is the science of comparative government and means of administering public trusts - the theory of governance as applied to state institutions. It is usually considered a branch of applied ethics and is certainly part of politics.
Within any given political tradition or ethical tradition, civics refers to education in the obligations and the rights of the citizen under that tradition. When these change, so often does the definition of civics. Related education in history, religion and media literacy is often included. In the United States, this is the explicit rationale for public education - to ensure the United States Constitution is upheld by citizens who must, at least, know what it is.
When applied to cities and their organization, it is often difficult to distinguish civics from theories of urban planning. When applied to rural areas, it is difficult to distinguish from theories of rural development. The history of civics dates back to the earliest theories of these by Plato in ancient Greece and Confucius in ancient China. These in general have led to modern distinctions between 'West' and 'East', and two very different concepts of right and justice and ethics in public life.
Of special concern are the choice of a form of government and (if this is any form of democracy) the design of an electoral system and ongoing electoral reform. This involves explicitly comparing voting systems, wealth distribution and the decentralization of political and legal power, control of legal systems and adoption of legal codes, and even political privacy - all seen as important to avoid a dystopic carceral state or a lapse into some undesirable state of totalitarianism or theocracy. Each of these concerns tends to make the process of governance different, as variations in these norms tends to produce a quite different kind of state. Civics was often simply concerned with the balance of power between say an aristocracy and monarchy - a concern echoed to this day in the struggles for power between different levels of rulers - say of the weaker nation-states to establish a binding international law that will have an effect even on the stronger ones. Thus world government is itself properly a civic problem.
On smaller scales, modern human development theory attempts to unify ethics and small-scale politics with the urban and rural economics of sustainable development. Notable theorists including Jane Jacobs and Carol Moore argue that political secession of either cities or distinct bioregions and cultures is an essential pre-requisite to applying any widely shared ethics, as the ethical views of urban and rural people, different cultures or those engaged in different types of agriculture, are irreconcilably different. This extreme advocacy of decentralization is hardly uncommon, and leads to the minimal theory of civics - anarchism.
Most civic theories are more trusting of public institutions, and can be characterized on a scale from least (mob rule) to most (the totalitarian) degree of trust placed in key public institutions. At the risk of extreme oversimplification, an historical view of civic theory in action suggests that the theories be ranked as follows:
- mob rule - trusting of the instincts and power of large groups - no consistent civics at all
- anarchism - no government, a common ethical code enforced only by personal governance and voluntary association, some means of preventing or ending mob rule (maybe)
- minarchy - a minimal hierarchy - e.g. sometimes said to include eco-anarchism
- libertarianism - a fixed set of rules that define property rights and are enforced strictly - static, with no need to make new law
- direct democracy - decisions made directly by citizens without guidance or moral suasion, e.g. as advocated by H. Ross Perot, usually relying on multiple choice laid out by experts
- deliberative democracy - decisions made by locally-grouped citizens obligated to participate in consensus decision making process, e.g. as advocated by Ralph Nader
- bioregional democracy - a deliberative democracy regulated by a caste of highly-qualified scientific advisors ( both ecologists and ethicists) who can use scientific method to challenge or veto major ecological decisions, means of measuring well-being or selecting criteria for moral purchasing by the entire bioregional state
- technocracy - reliance on castes of scientists, e.g. doctors to rule society, and define risk for the whole society - sometimes generalized into anticipatory democracy. Can be interpreted as leading to or including kleptocracy
- aristocracy - general trust in one family- or wealth-defined group in society to rule, e.g. scientists, lawyers, doctors or members of particular noble families. Includes plutocracy
- constitutional monarchy - a monarch, possibly purely symbolic and devoted to moral example, avoiding vesting such popularity in any less trustworthy political figure - typically tied to at least some deliberative institutions, and making the monarch a tiebreaker or mediator or coach, e.g. Queen Elizabeth II and Anthony Blair
- representative democracy - a political class of elected representatives is trusted to carry out duties for the electors - these may be responsible to any group in society, or none, once elected, e.g. G. W. Bush
- absolute monarchy - a monarch who rules for life and can pass on this rule to his or her heirs, but is responsible to some social ideal or culture that has trained him or her to carry out these duties, e.g. Louis XIV, Hirohito, most dynastic Emperors, Augustus Caesar
- dictatorship - a political or military ruler who has the powers but not the moral authority of the monarch, e.g. Saddam Hussein, Japanese Tokugawa Shoguns, Roman Emperors after Augustus.
- totalitarian - a dictator who has the moral authority of the monarch without necessarily being raised in any particular tradition - and who is vested with this trust by virtue of holding power itself, e.g. Napoleon, Hitler, any dynasty-founding Chinese Emperor.
Civics refers not to the ethical or moral or political basis by which a ruler acquires power, but only to the processes and procedures they follow in actually exercising it. Thus, some figures, e.g. Napoleon, count as totalitarian because they instituted a legal code and altered rules of succession to favor themselves and their families. Meanwhile, other figures who were arguably more cruel or arbitrary are ranked as examples of lesser public trust, because in practice they followed clearer procedures. Some unique figures, like Mao or Stalin, are hard to characterize as they followed the form (but some would say not the substance) of consultation and deliberation - although disagreeing with these figures could mean exile or death.