An effort to return the nation to a gold standard was launched on Capital Hill yesterday by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who said it is the only way "to maintain sound and honest money."

Paul, who has introduced legislation making paper dollars freely convertible into gold coins, sponsored a day-long session for congressmen and their aides promoting the idea of re-establishing the dollar-gold relationship, broken by President Nixon in 1971.

The session yesterday, and a dinner Tuesday evening attended by presidential aide Martin Anderson and other administration officials, were financed by a foundation established by Paul to work for "individual liberty and the free market."

Although President Reagan -- before taking office -- many times made flirting, favorable references to a gold standard, he has never actively endorsed the idea. He also bypassed some well-known "gold bugs" who were candidates for jobs in his administration, including Lewis Lehrman, chairman of Rite-Aid Corp. in New York, who was a featured speaker at yesterday's session.

A high administration official said yesterday that no proposal for a gold standard, or study of it, has come up in any economic discussions since Reagan took office in January. But Reagan is well aware that, by and large, the gold lobby is also solidly in his political camp, and he has no desire to offend it.

Paul told a reporter that the tax-exempt group, the Foundation for Rational Economics and Education Inc. (FREE), had put up $5,000 to finance the dinner and the video-taping of yesterday's session, which enthusiastically received every speaker. Paul intends to make the tape available on the House closed-circuit television system to drum up support for his bill, which has six co-sponsors.

"This is an educational effort to promote sound money," Paul siad. By moving to a system where gold coins can be obtained for paper money, "the people will be more in charge than the bankers or the government. That way, an individual can always 'vote" against the government by turning in currency for gold, at whatever level the market sets," he said.

Revival of the gold standard has had a zealous following ever since President Roosevelt moved in 1933 to prohibit individual citizens from continuing to own gold. But in recent years, establishment economists -- Republican as well as Democratic -- have successfully contended that to use gold as the basis for the nation's money and credit would be highly deflationary, because it would tie economic expansion to a scarce commodity.

Moreover, it has been pointed out that South Africa and the Soviet Union, as the principal sources of new gold, would not reap a windfall, but would in effect be holding the United States political hostage.

Lehrman, in setting out the case for returning to a gold standard, predicted that economic events would force such a development within seven years. He labeled a "canard" the notion that a gold standard would yield a measure of political control of U.S. affairs to the South Africans and Russians, saying that "total new production is a drop in the bucket compared to stocks on hand."

He added that the economy is already in a crisis, and that the chances are about one in two of an actual breakdown of the economic system that would then precipitate a return to gold in one form or another.

But another speaker, Barron's Weekly editor Robert Bleiberg, labeled Lehrman's promise of a gold standard within seven years "more of a hope than a forecast." He thinks gold hit its peak price at $850 an ounce in 1980. Although he said he was sympathetic to the view that a gold standard would provide a basis for sound money, Bleiberg also said that "it's not a must." Without it, he said that "things [under Reagan] seem to be going right for a change. The '80s will not be as dismal as the '70s."

Hans Sennholz, chairman of the economics department of Grove City College, in making his pitch for gold as "non-political," said "the savings of the middle class have been consumed by government deficits and the inflationary process."

But Sennholz predicted that "the politicians will never give us the gold standard." Instead, he suggested it would "come in through the back door" as people are driven by inflation to buy and hold gold and silver coins. Sennholz said a West Coast firm is already planning to mint silver coins "and sell them door-to-door like cosmetics."