Distressed by government's failure to solve a host of economic and social problems, private citizens in the United States have mounted what appears to be a record number of campaigns this year to get their proposals on state ballots and perhaps radically alter the style of American politics.

Millions of dollars are being spent to promote new tax limitations, new business fees, toughening of criminal and welfare laws, new charges on bottles and cans, legalization of marijuana and curtailment of the use of nuclear power.

Citizens are also using the initiative process to try to increase the alcohol content of dessert wine in Idaho, protect the moose in Maine and abolish daylight saving time in North Dakota.

According to the National Center for Initiative Review in Denver, 18 citizen proposals have already won places on state ballots and signatures are being sought for 175 more. Initiative experts predict that more than 50 citizen measures will appear on ballots nationwide in 1982, the most since the Depression of the 1930s.

"There is voter frustration on both sides of the political spectrum, and in the middle too, with the non-responsiveness of legislatures," said Patrick McGuigan, editor of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Report.

Already 23 states allow citizens to put issues on the ballot by petition. According to David Magleby, a Brigham Young University assistant professor who has made a study of initiatives, the success of the tax-cutting Proposition 13 in California has prompted serious consideration of extending the initiative process to Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. A national initiative system has also been proposed in Congress.

Despite the initiative's renewed popularity, however, many politicians and political science professors say they are troubled by what they consider ill-drawn initiative proposals that appeal to public passions against taxes and crime but produce only long court battles over their constitutionality.

California's "Victims' Bill of Rights," scheduled to appear on the June primary ballot, has been criticized as confusing and potentially unconstitutional and a way of giving only false hopes to voters who wish to provide restitution to crime victims and cut down on the release of suspects on bail.

Magleby said that some initiatives seem to be motivated as much by a desire for fame and money as for political change. "No one would have ever heard of Howard Jarvis if it wasn't for Proposition 13," he said. "The initiative has been a way for political entrepreneurs to gain some fame."

In California, where initiatives have been successful and controversial for several decades, legislators say some private marketing and public relations firms have encouraged groups with a cause to hire them to gather signatures and do advertising.

"The publicists make money. The people who circulate the petitions make money," said John T. Knox, a San Francisco attorney and former California assemblyman, "but I think it is a very bad way to make the laws."

Magleby said his studies show that the official summaries of citizen ballot measures designed to guide voters in California can only be completely understood by those with an "18th grade" education. "You have to have an MBA or a second year of law school to have the necessary vocabulary," he said.

As a consequence, voters often pass over initiative measures without voting on them at all. David D. Schmidt, editor of the Initiative News Report in Washington, said in the more than 80 years the initiative has been in use the ballot measures appear to have passed about 37 percent of the time on the average.

In 1980, 17, or 37 percent, of the 46 citizen-initiated ballot measures passed. When Minnesota recently put on its ballot a proposal to create an initiative process in the state, more voters favored it than opposed it, but so many failed to vote on it at all that it did not receive the necessary majority of those who appeared at the polls.

McGuigan said that "if there is a crisis caused by the overuse of the initiative process, the blame should go to the state legislatures of all stripes who have not responded" to citizen complaints about taxes, crime and other issues.

He said the conservative citizen groups who have pushed measures like Proposition 13 sound very much like the populist groups who first established initiative systems in several western states early in the century. "There was grass-roots fervor . . . to bypass the special interests," he said.

According to Sue Thomas, research director for the National Center for Initiative Review, the largest number of ballot initiatives in a single year was 89 in 1914. The number declined during World War I, increased again during the 1930s and then dropped again to a lower level during and after World War II.

The lowest number of initiatives in any year was 10 in 1968, Schmidt said, but in the wake of the Vietnam war and Watergate the numbers began to climb again in the 1970s.

The National Center, a business-supported group, was established last year to monitor the rapidly expanding initiative phenomenon, which many of its professional politician board members view with some dismay. But Knox, a board member and a 20-year veteran of the California legislature, summed up their view: "I think we're stuck with it."