A MINOR EPIDEMIC of gold fever may be spreading in Washington, now that a gold commission appointed by President Reagan has begun assessing the prospects for a return to that monetary standard. Its faithful advocates believe it would be a prompt cure for the nation's major economic ailments. First restore gold, they assert, and the rate of inflation will decline dramatically, interest rates will tumble, and industry will plunge into a long-lasting period of expansion. They argue that, in the American past, there existed a similar golden age that occurred largely because of the presence of a metallic standard of value.

Unfortunately, the historical record does not sustain that beguiling myth. Even from 1789 to 1873, when the United States enjoyed a bimetallic standard (gold and silver), there occurred dramatic fluctations in market value -- and use -- of silver and gold. Then as now, moreover, the "judgment" of government experts normally had more influence on the value of money than the supposedly "automatic" play of market forces. It was through such human intervention, in fact, that gold became the sole standard of value in the first place. Key Treasury analysts and a few congressmen had recognized by the early 1870s that the world oversupply of silver threatened to produce future currency instability and high inflation. Consequently, they inserted provisions in the 1873 Coinage Act demonetizing silver.

Only intermittently, during the half-century that followed, did a gold standard produce either "stability" or prosperity. A gold-based currency reinforced the deflationary trends that helped to exacerbate the depressions of 1873-79 and 1893-98. Finally, discoveries of vast supplies of gold in the 1890s played a useful inflationary role by lowering the price of gold, which helped to induce business expansion and end the depression. Later, during America's brief involvement in World War I, prices more than doubled despite the gold standard.

Today, the gold advocates remain a small band, influential beyond their numbers both because of the residual attractiveness of "hard money" symbolism to Americans and because of the sheer enthusiasm with which they preach their gospel. They seek a standard of absolute constancy as much moral as economic and, in the end, not easily accomodated by the often cantankerous realities of the American scene.